Top Chef, S14E01.

We’re in Charleston! Great food city, beautiful downtown. I wish I had more work reasons to go there and catch a Riverdogs game (they have great food there). I’m glad Top Chef chose Charleston now before climate change pushes the city underwater.

One bit of self-promotion first – I posted my annual list of cookbook recommendations on Monday, and it includes the work of a few Top Chef alumni, including two past winners.

* Half of the sixteen chef-testants are returnees. We get Brooke, who lost to Kristen Kish in the strange live-elimination format. John Tesar is back. There’s Sheldon, who got to open two restaurants post-TC. Casey, who’s been on the show at least twice before, is back for more. Were they having trouble finding enough new chefs to compete?

* Katsuji’s back, and asks “Am I getting subtitles on Top Chef this year or not?” I don’t think he needs subtitles so much as he needs a cap on his ingredient count.

* The chefs are split into two groups of eight, so first the new chefs compete. We meet a few of them, including Jamie, who is immediately Neck-Tat Guy; and Jim, the Executive Chef of the state of Alabama, a big Star Trek and Buffy fan whose voice is even higher than mine.

* First (rookie) quickfire: Testing everything from knife skills, time management, presentation. The chefs get one hour to creating as many dishes as you want featuring … a chicken. The loser of group one will face the loser of group two and the loser of that gets eliminated.

* Alabama wants to make three dishes, including something with the skin and the innards, because when he was a kid he would often share a box of fried chicken livers with his dad.

* Gerald is smoking a chicken breast and talking about a soup that might include a 63-degree egg. I do not want a 63-degree egg any more than I want a 40-degree day.

* Padma asks Neck-Tat: “Are you tattooed everywhere?” He says, “Almost everywhere. 75%.” This makes me uncomfortable. Then he tells the confessional that his former boss used to call him Rodman and claims the ink is his defense mechanism against the corporate world. Sure thing, buddy. I don’t think the corporate world is fazed.

* The Italian-born Silvia Barban is making pasta without a rest period for the dough. If she pulls this off I’d say she’s an immediate favorite to get to the finals, because the judges always love fresh pasta dishes. It got both Nina and Sarah G to the final two in their seasons.

* Charleston-chef, Emily, says she’s been fired from a couple of jobs because of her attitude. During their visit to her station, she tells Tom & Padma “anyway stop talking.”

* Tesar says “Top Chef is all about the clock.” The eight vets are watching the rookies on TV in the stew room are all yelling at them to plate. They’re sort of rooting for everyone, and remembering what it was like to be in the rookies’ place.

* Silvia gets the first dish out – fresh tagliatelle with chicken ragout and crispy chicken skin, mascarpone, and orange.

* Neck-Tat burned his vegetables. That’s a rookie error.

* Gerald says his dish “doesn’t represent me as a chef.” Alabama says it’s “totally worrisome” that he only made livers after these grandiose plans for two or three dishes.

* Here comes the food. BJ made a chasseur-style thigh with mushrooms, bacon, liver, and pressure-cooker stock. … Jim (Alabama) made fried innards with aioli, butter lettuces, strawberry vinaigrette; Tom says “I wish we saw some more” … Emily made buttermilk/black pepper biscuits with fried chicken, thick bread and butter pickle, and slaw; plus an Asian BBQ wing with tamarind and chili glaze … Gerald made a smoked, buttermilk-poached chicken, chicken jus, wild mushrooms, and a vegetable fricasee; he tells Tom & Padma “it looks easier on television” … Jamie (Neck-Tat) made a pan-roasted breast and a stripped-down chicken grand-mère with glazed spring vegetables and crushed potatoes. … Sylva, who’s Haitian, made a paprika and chili-marinated buttermilk chicken with grated corn pudding. I thought this had the best presentation … Silvia’s second dish was a corn, jalapeno, heirloom tomato salad with balsamic-marinted chicken. I love how she pronounces the “h” in heirloom, and Padma praises her for two dishes … Annie made a pan-seared breast, with a panzanella and a black garlic jus. Tom scoffs at her and says it’s not a panzanella. The vets all feel bad for her as they watch her face fall.

* Favorites: Silvia’s pasta, where they loved hint of orange and the texture of the crisped skin; Emily’s chicken wings, which were simple with a lot of flavor; and Jim, whose livers had a lot of flavor, crunch, and acidity.

* Jim wins, and gets immunity. Already we have weirdness in the judging – Silvia made two dishes that the judges liked, one they loved, and managed to execute a fresh pasta dish in a very short period of time, while Jim made just one dish and wasted almost the entire bird and won.

* Least favorites: Annie’s chicken was nicely cooked, but her “panzanella” was sloppy and just “a bunch of croutons” according to Tom; Gerald, whose sauce was greasy because his quick stock appears to have emulsified; Neck-Tat, who killed his vegetables by overcooked. Tom says Gerald’s was the worst, so he’s up for elimination. Gerald says in confessional it’s the least favorite dish of his he’s ever cooked.

* Silvia says in confessional that she “always had a little crush on Sam” Talbot, from season 2, who’s also back.

* Graham Elliott is the new fourth judge for this season. The veterans’ challenge is to get creative with shrimp and grits, with thirty minutes to make their versions of this classic dish. Casey says grits can barely be done in that time. The only way I know to make polenta, which is essenitally yellow-corn grits, takes a minimum of 35.

* Brooke is using ground shrimp rather than sausage to wrap and cook a Scotch egg, which seems risky just because the traditional method means there’s plenty of fat in the ‘wrapper,’ while shrimp is so lean that a ground shrimp mixture could dry right out unless she’s adding fat to it.

* We got a lot of foreshadowing stuff here that ended up going nowhere. Katsuji’s scorching tomatoes and peppers on the burner but appears not to be paying attention. Sheldon’s hand blender doesn’t work. Amanda hasn’t been cooking in almost two years due to a back problem. Here’s a spoiler: None of them lost.

* And the food: Brooke did make that shrimp Scotch egg with grits, lemon fennel salad, and espelette … Sam made shrimp with coconut milk grits, blackened tomatoes, vinegar, chili, and maple syrup … Shirley made her “bowl of hug,” shrimp and grits with steamed egg custard made with shrimp stock, fresh corn, and bacon; Graham said it had “explosive” flavor and noticed touch of sesame at the end … Katsuji made adobo-style shrimp and grits, with fish stock, charred tomatoes and peppers; Padma said – who saw this coming – that Katsuji “could use a little editing” … Casey made coconut shrimp and grits with corn, smoked tomato sauce, peach and fennel salad; she cooked the shrimp and corn in coconut oil, and corn ended up the dominant flavor … Tesar made Korean shrimp and grits with faux kimchi … Amanda made head-on shrimp with tasso ham, pickled raisins, peaches, and kale chiffonade (why?) … Sheldon made dashi-poached shrimp and miso grits, yuzu miso broth, and pickled cabbage; the judges felt this was a little flat.

* Favorites: Amanda, Brooke, and Shirley. The judges praise Brooke’s technique, especially the perfect cooking of the egg at the heart of the dish. Tom said Shirley’s “gave you a hug after it slapped you.” The winner is Brooke, unsurprisingly, given the risk she took.

* She mentions in the confessional that there’s an “old wives’ tale” that whoever wins the first TC challenge has a better chance of winning the whole thing. I could look it up but I’m too lazy.

* Least favorites: Casey’s fell flat; it was tasty, but not at the level of others. Tesar’s dish didn’t seem to make much sense to the judges, and Tom couldn’t figure out what the kimchi was doing there. Katsuji didn’t include enough of his pickled vegetables to get them in every bite. Tesar is the bottom and has to face Gerald in an elimination quickfire.

* Tesar is 58. I don’t think he looks that old, and he doesn’t act that old. Katsuji advises him to mess with Gerald’s head, but to Tesar’s credit he doesn’t seem interested in that kind of gamesmanship.

* Gerald says – I think I got this right – that he used to live in his car when he and his wife were going through a separation because he couldn’t afford two residences, one for his wife and five kids and one for himself. I rewound this twice and still am not 100% sure if that was past tense.

* The elimination challenge takes place at Boone Hall Plantation, a working plantation that is also a sort of museum of slavery, with tours available for people to see the slave quarters. The main house reminded me of Django Unchained, but that was filmed in Louisiana.

* Padma explains that “since the 1950s it’s been open to visitors … to honor those who worked and toiled here.” Those were slaves. Just say the word. In fact, shout it. Don’t gloss over it as “work.” And maybe this wasn’t a great place for an episode.

* Elimination quickfire: Apparently this plantation is home to one of the world’s largest oyster festivals. Tesar and Gerald each have 20 minutes to make an oyster dish, and there’s a fire going for an oyster roast.

* Tesar brought truffles and busts them out for his dish. Apparently Top Chef allows contestants to bring a few ingredients with them. Other chefs are all “whoa,” but 1) truffles are the most cliché ingredient imaginable and I hate when judges give chefs credit for using them and 2) I doubt every contestant has the cash to buy a truffle or the access to ‘borrow’ one.

* Gerald only puts a couple of oysters on the fire, which looks like a rookie mistake, and when the first batch turn out to have little crabs in them (ew) he has to go cook a second batch. I had to look this up, but apparently these are called oyster pea crabs, and they’re both edible and considered a delicacy. Wikipedia linked to this 1913 NY Times article (PDF) about the little bugs, and a quick google search turned up this Delmarva Now story about them. I guess Gerald should have kept the crabs and used them?

* Tesar made an oyster “stew,” with cream-poached oysters, truffle butter, hot sauce, shaved truffle. He put the raw oyster in the bowl and poured the hot soup liquid over it to “poach” it, although that’s a stretch on the definition of poaching. Tom says “the oyster is totally raw.” … Gerald served roasted oysters with thai-style mignonette and tomato compote. He jokes that he “can’t do too much. I didn’t bring truffles.” I think the judges are underwhelmed by the concept – it’s a very basic preparation.

* They send Gerald home, saying his Thai flavors weren’t hot enough – that if you’re selling something as Thai, it should have some heat. I’d have preferred to lose Tesar and see someone new stick around longer; Tesar’s act wore thin last time around, and it’s not as if he made it to the finals like Brooke did.

Stick to baseball, 12/3/16.

I had a couple of Insider pieces this week, on the trade of Jaime Garcia to Atlanta, the Cespedes contract, the trade of Alex Jackson to Atlanta, and my proposal for an international draft (written before the CBA negotiations ended). I also held a Klawchat on Thursday.

My latest boardgame review for Paste covers Grifters, a “deckbuilder without a deck” that I thought played a little too mechanically.

You can preorder my upcoming book, Smart Baseball, on amazon. Also, please sign up for my more-or-less weekly email newsletter.

And now, the links…

Music update, November 2016.

November was very strong both for new album releases and for singles that preview albums we will see in January and February of next year, but really, this was about the Tribe, y’all. If you can’t see the embedded player below, you can click here to get directly to the Spotify playlist.

A Tribe Called Quest – We The People… The Tribe’s return this month on We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service was a welcome comeback from one of the towering lights of the Golden Age of Hip-Hop, tinged with sorrow from the March death of founding member Phife Dawg, who died near the end of the recording process. Q-Tip sounds as good as ever, and Jarobi White’s first appearance with the Tribe since the group’s debut album provides a low-register voice to balance Tip and Phife’s higher deliveries. The album is full of rage, true to the quartet’s Afro-centric roots but with an angry, cynical worldview they didn’t have or need on their earlier albums. This is the record of the year, and it is very much a document of our time.

Ten Fé – Overflow. This London duo does a modernized riff on classic, synth-heavy new wave, and this single, which I believe is their fifth so far, is perfect if you like the music of White Lies.

Japandroids – Near To The Wild Heart Of Life. I did not share the industry consensus on Japandroids’ 2012 album Celebration Rock, which I thought was too much noise and not enough rock. This first single ahead of their next album’s release on January 27th shows better production values and a tighter sense of melody than anything I heard off their last record.

Sundara Karma – The Night. Sundara Karma are a quartet from Reading – the one in England, not the one near me – that seem to fit in somewhere between late Britpop and the sort of traditional American arena-rock now exemplified by Kings of Leon. “The Night,” from their debut EP Loveblood, definitely leans more toward the American half of that formula, with a blues-rock underpinning and the sort of yearning sound I associate with KoL’s slower material.

Milky Chance – Cocoon. After 2015’s “Stolen Dance,” I sort of assumed we’d never hear anything decent from Milky Chance again; between that song’s novelty sound and their awful band name, they had one-hit wonder written all over them. “Cocoon” is actually a pretty good song, though – not quite as catchy as their first hit but catchy enough to be a hit on its own.

Sleigh Bells – I Can’t Stand You Anymore. Sleigh Bells, like Japandroids, tend to be too noise-oriented for me, often reminding me of the worst sound excesses of 1990s “industrial” music. Alexis Krauss has a great voice that I’ve always thought ill-fitting for the duo’s musical style, but when they pursue a more pop-oriented direction, as here or on their first hit, “Rill Rill,” her vocal combination of power and sweetness provides the perfect contrast.

Cloves – Better Now. Cloves is an auto-inclusion after her 2015 song “Frail Love,” which made my top ten tracks of the year. “Better Now” is the first release from her forthcoming full-length debut, still raw and very dark but with some textural contrast between the chorus and the nearly a capella verses.

Grace VanderWaal – I Don’t Know My Name. I don’t know how you could have missed her, but VanderWaal just won the most recent season of America’s Got Talent and released her debut EP, Perfectly Imperfect, on December 2nd. She wrote the music and lyrics for all five songs on the record. She’s twelve years old. Simon Cowell said she’s the next Taylor Swift and I don’t think that was usual TV hyperbole.

Hey Violet – Brand New Moves. Formerly known as Cherri Bomb, this LA-based quintet has gone from opening for the defunct alt-rock band Lostprophets to opening for the awful boy-band 5SOS, neither of makes much sense if you listen to their latest EP, their first recording under their new name. This is funk/soul-tinged pop music, definitely smarter musically than you’d expect from a group touring with a boy band, with lyrics inappropriate for the tween crowds I assume they were facing.

FREAK – Nowhere. English singer Connar Ridd records as FREAK and toured with Sundara Karma earlier this year. I saw a review that compared this track to Nirvana’s Nevermind, but FREAK is more Mudhoney than Nirvana, or if you’d like a more contemporary reference, it sounds a lot like the better tracks from Drenge’s self-titled debut.

Lapcat – She’s Bad. A Swiss-American electronica trio, Lapcat just released its third album, and this title track has the same hynoptic vibe of Portishead and early trip-hop stalwarts like Massive Attack or Tricky, but with a more accessible sound than either of those latter two acts brought.

Peter Doherty – Kolly Kibber. The Libertines’ ne’er-do-well singer/guitarist is not dead yet and appears to have a solo album in the works. There’s no mistaking Doherty’s voice or his style, although he tends to pack better punches than this song delivers.

Gone Is Gone – Gift. This ‘supergroup,’ featuring members of Mastodon, QotSA, and At the Drive-In, appeared on my May playlist with their strong, stoner-rock debut track “Violescent,” part of an eight-song EP, and they’re already back with a track from their first full-length album, Echolocation, due out January 6th.

Run The Jewels featuring BOOTS – 2100. I’m also on record as being something less than a fan of Run the Jewels’ profane lyrics, most of which are boasting about what great rappers they are (they’re not) or about their guns. If you haven’t heard RtJ before, you’ve at least heard one half of the duo, Killer Mike, who delivered the middle and by far the worst verse on Outkast’s 2002 hit “The Whole World.” RtJ’s third album is due out soon and I can at least say that this is the best song I’ve heard from the group, boosted by the presence of producer/singer BOOTS, who helped produced the group’s last album and whose track “I Run Roulette” appeared on one of my monthly playlists in 2015.

Black Map – Run Rabbit Run. Wikipedia identifies Black Map as “post-hardcore,” and what in the fuck is post-hardcore music? This isn’t hardcore, or anything like it; it’s hard rock, just this side of metal. It would fit on Octane, and it wouldn’t be out of place on Liquid Metal. There’s a bass-and-drum riff in the chorus here that feels derived from more extreme genres, but there’s an actual harmony in the vocals in the bridge, and a better sense of melody than you’d get from most post-whatever bands right now.

Pissed Jeans – The Bar Is Low. So, this is a bad name for a band, and I don’t love a lot of their songs because the lead singer often sounds like he’s gargling a pack of razor blades. You can actually understand what he’s saying and tolerate his voice on this track, though.

Sumerlands – The Seventh Seal. A reader recommended this group, which brings the big guitar sounds of NWOBHM and early ’80s metal but doesn’t have the same strong melodies of classic Maiden or Priest. This track was my favorite off their self-titled debut album, thanks to the memorable opening guitar riff.

Animals As Leaders – Backpfeifengesicht. More instrumental metal wizardry from Tosin Abasi & friends.

Hammerfall – Bring It!. Hammerfall hail from Gothenburg, home of a specific type of melodic death metal known, but they’re a throwback speed-metal band that just released its tenth album, Built to Last, at the start of November. If you remember the first two albums by German speed-metal titans Helloween, this song could easily be a leftover track from those recording sessions.

Kreator – Gods of Violence. I tweeted about this song a few weeks ago – Kreator’s core members are all nearing or just over 50, and they dropped one of the year’s best metal tracks. Kreator was probably the first extreme-metal band to which I was ever exposed, thanks to MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball, which would play the psychedelic videos for their early songs “Betrayer” and “Toxic Trace;” I also remember hearing “Some Pain Will Last” in college but lost track of the band after their 1990 album Coma of Souls as they evolved away from classic thrash metal. It appears that they’ve gone back to their classic sound, but better production values and some real songcraft make “Gods of Violence,” which incorporates some death-metal elements but is still undeniably thrash, as compelling as any of their 1980s tracks.


Moonlight is already one of the best-reviewed movies of the year, and it feels like a lock for a Best Picture nomination, especially in light of recent criticism that the Oscars are too white. It’s an unusually quiet, understated movie, often painfully silent, mimicking the internal suffering of its main character, a gay black man we follow from elementary school to young adulthood as he struggles to find any way or place he can feel comfortable in his own skin.

The story unfurls in three parts, with a different actor playing the lead character in each stage, with probably six to eight years separating each third. Chiron, variously known as Little or Black, first appears on screen as he’s chased by a bunch of classmates shouting about beating “his gay ass” as they run through a project in Miami, eventually cornering him in a boarded-up motel or apartment complex where he’s found by the local dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali). Juan ends up serving as a sort of father figure to Chiron, but the relationship unravels as Chiron’s mother, Paula, becomes a crack addict. The film follows Chiron through a miserable experience in high school as a bullied, silent kid whose one experience with sexuality is followed by betrayal and disaster, to his transformation as an adult into a jacked-up enforcer in Atlanta who comes back to Miami to reunite with his estranged friend.

If you want to summarize Moonlight as the gay black movie, you wouldn’t exactly be wrong, but you’d be doing the screenplay by director Barry Jenkins and playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney a huge disservice. Chiron is a target because he’s gay, something even his own mother can’t accept, but the theme of ostracism and isolation is broader than just that brought on by homophobia – and if Chiron were comfortable with his sexuality, or had a support system at home, or were just willing to defend himself physically (as Kevin tells him in part one), his story arc would be completely different. Chiron’s problem is not that he’s gay, but that he is who he is, with no one around to tell him that he’s okay, or to help him become a more assertive, confident person before it’s too late. You could just as easily say Moonlight is about a life ruined by the scourge of crack in poor black communities. I don’t think it’s any of those things, not individually, but draws on so many different themes that it manages to create a complex story with a bare minimum of dialogue.

And when I say a bare minimum, I mean it; you could probably write this entire script on the head of a pin using a Sharpie and an old English font. Chiron rarely says more than two or three words at a time, and often just doesn’t answer questions addressed directly to him. No one talks at length except for Kevin, and by the third act, it seems like it’s out of nervousness rather than him having something to say. The silences throughout the film are there to make you uncomfortable, to make you feel the characters’ discomfort, but as someone with the attention span of a goldfish I felt a little like I was watching Steve Trachsel’s directorial debut. The silences are undoubtedly effective, both for that purpose and for making the film’s bursts of activity that much more incisive, but oh my God Chiron just answer the question!

It seems like Moonlight is already generating Oscar buzz, and it’s on par with some of the best movies I’ve seen the last few years as a work of art, but I wonder if any actors in the film will earn nominations given how little time most of them get on screen. Of the three actors to play Chiron, only Trevante Rhodes really has enough to do to merit a Supporting Actor nod, and Ali could get consideration for the same. As much as I’d like to see Janelle Monáe, who plays Juan’s girlfriend Teresa and appears in two of the three parts, get a nomination, the character is too one-note for that, and Naomie Harris, who plays Chiron’s mother, has much more weight to her role as well as the bonus points from playing a drug addict. (The hair and makeup department did their best to make Monáe look plain, but failed.) I could see Moonlight getting Picture, Director, and Screenplay nods but whiffing on the four Actor categories, depending of course on what the rest of the field looks like; the Screen Actors Guild has a Best Ensemble category, however, and that seems tailor-made for a film like Moonlight that is the sum of many great, small performances.

I’m hoping to catch a few more of the leading contenders in the next few weeks – La La Land, Loving, and Manchester by the Sea among them – as my writing schedule permits.

Klawchat, 12/1/16.

You can preorder my upcoming book, Smart Baseball, on amazon. Also, please sign up for my more-or-less weekly email newsletter.

Also, my latest boardgame review is up for Paste, covering Grifters, a “deckbuilder without a deck” that I thought played a little too mechanically.

Klaw: Klawchat. To stimulate then activate the left and right brain.

Greg: Keith do you like Atlanta’s thinking in the Alex Jackson deal? Your writeup talked about potential mechanical fixes, do you think those would bring him back close to where he was?
Klaw: I do like their thinking – trade two arms well down their prospect depth chart, get a guy who was at one point a potential 1-1 pick, still young, might need a change of scenery. Definitely a risk that he never pans out, but the reward here makes the high risk worth taking.

Frank: How does the Alex Jackson breakdown happen? It seems like everyone universally loved his swing, he hit against good comp as an amateur. What happened?
Klaw: I don’t think there’s a single answer to that. He didn’t click with the Mariners’ coaching staff. A mechanical issue he flashed some in high school got worse. I am not sure if the position switch affected him. He probably was pushed to full-season ball too fast in 2015, but that can’t really explain 2016.

Cory: Archie Bradley and what else can get Brian Dozier?
Klaw: Why would they want Dozier?

Nick: Could the Braves actually acquire a star like Chris Sale without dealing one of the core players already on their MLB roster (Swanson, Smith, Inciarte, Folty, etc)? Is it even worth it for them to do more than address a couple obvious holes for right now?
Klaw: Other than Swanson, why would you say no to dealing any of those other guys? Hell, you might even include Swanson if he’s the anchor of a trade. Sale’s a 5-win pitcher. Those aren’t easy to find.

Paul: Klaw – thanks for the write-up on great kitchen gifts. It left me wondering – what is the one expensive, non-functional item in your kitchen you alluded to?
Klaw: The espresso machine. Over $600 and it does one thing. But it does it really fucking well.

Fuzzy Dunlop: Do you think the Braves will/should hit the “reset” button so to speak with Alex Jackson and try to put him back at C? He could fall short of his best case scenario offensively and still be a hell of a value behind the dish; however, you don’t want to yank him all over the place and make him readjust again positionally.
Klaw: Although I think he could catch, at this point, I would not want to ask him to do two things (develop as a catcher and re-learn how to hit) at once.

James: University of Missouri has 128 confirmed mumps cases on campus. If we only had a way to prevent such outbreaks.
Klaw: Or a President-elect who didn’t pander to vaccine-denier frauds and morons.

Ceej: As a Pirates’ fan, what should I hope in exchange for Cutch, and is Meadows ready?
Klaw: Robles has to be in the deal. If I’m Huntington I’m asking for Robles and one of the young arms – and yes, I’m including Giolito. Ask for the sun, settle for the moon. I do not think Meadows is quite ready.

Pete: Hey Keith, big fan of your work, just preordered your book! Do you know if there’s a way to be an insider without having the paper magazine? I just think it’s a huge waste, when I was an insider, I never touched them. I would very much prefer to have an option of only receiving the magazine online. Thanks!
Klaw: We do or did offer a digital option.

Jon: Keith, what prospects (hitting/pitching) do you see making a big jump in 2017? Thank you
Klaw: That’ll be something for my top prospects package in January. I haven’t started work on that yet.

Dale: Do you see A’s prospect Frankie Montas long term as a starter or as a reliever?
Klaw: Reliever. Knee and size problems, poor command, inconsistent secondaries. 80 fastball though.

Charlie: Would you give up Robles for McCutchen if you were Mike Rizzo?
Klaw: It depends on what else is required. I’d be open to it.

Mack: Thoughts on Nick Allen? I’ve seen him play 3 times and all that little sh*t does is hit.
Klaw: That’s the perfect summary of him. I will see him again in the spring and Chris Crawford will probably see him a few times. I’m going to try to get to SoCal for a longer stretch than usual because that’s where the players are.

Jack: Keith, what have you heard about Ramon Laureano? Huge statistical season (albeit partly at Lancaster) but got some positive buzz in the AFL.
Klaw: Saw him, wrote positive buzz about him. I think he’s a legit everyday prospect.

Jason: Keith, what is the upside on Sandy Alcantara?
Klaw: Upside is ace. Long way to go to get there, but it is the right-tail outcome for him.

Bob: Now that you’ve been living in the Delaware Valley for some time, thoughts on Wawa and local obsession with it? Going out on a limb to guess you’re not a fan of the coffee.
Klaw: It’s a nice convenience store. I wouldn’t get coffee there with so many better options (Brew Ha Ha, which is a Delaware chain and roaster, is better and you’re never far from one here).

Nats Review Charlie: Robles for 2 year of McCutchen seems pretty fair, but do you think the Nats could do better elsewhere if they’re willing to deal Robles?
Klaw: Maybe. Probably, now that I think about it. But could they get someone who fits their needs? This is a pretty complete team right now. What’s the other big hole? Put Turner at short and then you’re just down an outfielder.

James: Traveling today and getting my questions in early – Would Hellickson and Walker have accepted the qualifying offer under the new conditions? The easy answer is no. I know hindsight is 20/20, but didn’t their agents know the union was pushing for a change in the system?
Klaw: I think the changes come into effect a year from now. Walker probably still accepts given the surgery. Hellickson maybe not. One year and $17 million is pretty good though. I don’t think he gets that AAV on a multi-year deal.

Tye: Opinion on $5M cap on international free agent spending?
Klaw: I’m waiting to get some more details on this – we’ve gotten half-stories so far. If that’s true, the union should be kicking itself for fighting a draft that would have paid the players more.

Mike: Hi Keith, as a new parent I’ve been debating the merits of buying organic produce. I recall a few months ago you said you try to buy organic when possible. What research or reasons led to seek out organic?
Klaw: Organic food is not any more healthful or safer than traditionally-grown food, and there is too wide a range within what you can legally call “organic” anyway. But organic agriculture in its original sense, as proposed by Lord Northbourne and others, is probably much better for the planet. Such practices develop healthier soil, sequester more carbon, and use less water. There’s research to back that, while research on organic ag’s health benefits have found nothing. For dairy and meat, I am most concerned with antibiotic-free husbandry rather than organic feed.

Mark: From what has been published so far, what do you think are the best and worst changes in the new CBA?
Klaw: Again, what we have seems to be incomplete and I’m trying to get some more details. If this bit Jeff Passan tweeted about the IFA age limit going up to 25 is true, then MLB just cut off its nose, lips, and eyelids to spite its own face. God forbid you spend some of your billions to pay better players.

addoeh: Thoughts on new season of Top Chef? Graham Elliot as a host, equal number of new chef-testants as returning chef-testants.
Klaw: Haven’t seen Elliott before, but not a fan of constantly recycling old contestants.

Ron: HI Keith- Nice to see Terry Ryan get a scouting job with the Phillies. Maybe having the analytics and tools to be a modern day GM kind of passed him, I would still bet he is one hell of a scout as far as finding talent and breaking down the physical parts of a prospects game. Good luck to him! Have you had any inter-action with him on the scouting circuit and what are your thoughts? Thanks!!
Klaw: I’ve talked to Terry a few times and I think scouting is really a passion for him too. I’m glad he’ll get to do that and be in an org that will let him have a voice at the table.

Bruce: Any recommendations for meals that can be made on the weekend to be consummed 3-4 days later?
Klaw: Serious Eats has a recipe for pressure cooker green chicken chili that would be great for that if you don’t just eat the whole thing at once like we seem to do.

Andy: Here’s a handy way to teach the Monty Hall door “problem.” You have 100 doors, there’s a prize behind one. Pick one. I’ll open 98 other doors. The prize didn’t move. You can switch doors or you can keep your current door and get beaten over the head with a pipe wrench.
Klaw: That escalated quickly. I’ve explained it this way before: You have doors A, B, and C. The car is behind one. You pick door A. You know, right now, that the odds of the car being behind door A is 1/3, B is 1/3, and C is 1/3. Thus, the odds of the car being behind door B or C is 2/3 (add B and C, or just do not A). Monty opens door C to show you a goat. The odds of the car being behind door B or C have not changed – the car didn’t move – but now the entire 2/3 is shifted to door B. The odds of the car being behind door A remain at 1/3, so you should switch.

Nick: Is Bobby Dalbec legit? I know he had some struggles at Arizona in the spring but he went on a tear in the minors to end the year.
Klaw: We’ll see. Lowell is a step down from good D1 pitching. Dalbec has power, but the strikeout rates in college were as high as we’ve seen for a big-name prospect.

Lyle: Did you see the 10 day DL proposal coming? I don’t recall seeing anything about it beforehand but I think it’s a great change for MLB.
Klaw: I didn’t, but I think we’ll see a lot of shenanigans with teams using it to cycle through extra pitchers.

Lyle: Dipoto seems to be willing to trade any time, any player but I just don’t see that he has the players to make a trade for McCutchen realistic. Probably have to start with O’Neill and Gohara and maybe add Leonys? Leaves the cupboard bare again.
Klaw: That doesn’t get close IMO.

Barry: Climate change. True or false? There are highly respected climatologists on both sides of the issue. Most of the noise is advocacy, not science. Mann of Penn State, Jones of East Anglia, and the falsifying of data. Why the silence? Global cooling, global warming, climate change. Why the difficulty in naming the problem?
Klaw: Anthropogenic climate change is real (true). You’re playing with words to create a false sense of balance (gotta hear both sides!). There was never a global cooling theory. The data and research showing the earth is warming and the oceans are getting more acidic are overwhelming. Grist has a great series of responses to climate deniers:

J. Kruk: Do you envision Rhys Hoskins or Dylan Cozens being anything more than MLB platoon players? What would be your realistic projection of each?
Klaw: Hoskins I think is a regular. Cozens I’m not sold on, and the makeup issue returning is a real concern.

Mike: How much of a scout’s ability to spot issues with a swing or throwing motion is innate, and how much is learned? When I watch the video clips that accompany write ups on scouting sites I struggle to see the flaws that are mentioned except at the extremes…and when I watch games live swings and throws inevitably happen too fast for me to form any opinion.
Klaw: I think it’s learned. You watch enough, focusing on certain things, you learn to observe different things. It’s how I can watch a delivery and then forget what the last batter did – I just watch the game differently now because I’ve learned to and because I have to.

Brian: Should Mets take advantage of interest and trade both Granderson and Bruce? Conforto is full time, go after Fowler possibly for CF, or trust Lagares and sign a platoon mate.
Klaw: Yes. I see no spot for Granderson now. If they won’t play Conforto every day, I think they’re beyond help.

Mike: Best rum for a Christmas gift? Maybe a top ten list of gift drinks?
Klaw: Ron Zacapa 23 is still the best rum I’ve tasted.

Jeff: I saw you recommend the propornot plugin for chrome a while back, have you seen these follow up articles about it?
Klaw: That wasn’t me.

EricVA: Can Jerad Eickhoff build off last year or is he the same guy moving forward?
Klaw: I think this is what he is and it’s pretty good.

Aubrey: Question on your FA rankings/Comments: An example, when you say on Encarnacion that you’d stop short of 4 yrs/$80 million, is that what you think his value should be somewhat in a vacuum, or you’re saying if you were a GM (avg market size, potential Division contender), you would always pass on the player if the market demanded you pay more than that?
Klaw: I say right at the top of the list, in the intro, that this is what I would pay.

Nolan LeMond: I’ve seen nothing but glowing reports and aggressive projections on Ronald Acuna, despite limited (albeit productive) experience in the low minors. Should I be getting excited or are folks getting a little carried away? What player would be a realistic comp for his big-league projection?
Klaw: I raved about him last winter and spring. I think he can really hit.

James: How do you drink your rums? Mixed or straight? If mixed, what do you mix with? Looking to explore some more rums and appreciate insight.
Klaw: Aged rums I drink straight, preferably chilled and strained (neat), or at most mixed with sparkling water or seltzer. I’ve had the Cruzan single-barrel, and it’s a little rougher than other rums aged that long (Appleton, Zacapa, Barcelo) so I would mix that with some sparkling water. If you want a rum for mixing in cocktails, get something like Appleton XV or Gosling’s Black.

Jesse B: McCutchen for Robles and Fedde. Good trade for both teams?
Klaw: Insufficient for Pittsburgh.

Dave: It appears like we’re not getting draft pick trading again. Shouldn’t this be a simple thing to implement? Seems like something they should have ironed out weeks ago before the big issues came to the fore.
Klaw: It’s nobody’s priority, unfortunately.

Craig: I was very PLEASE with the Mike Hazen signkng as GM for my Dbacks… and then I saw he was keeping around some of the garbage from before like Mike Butcher the pitching coach… because “great morale with players” or some crap. Odd right?
Klaw: I don’t think it’s odd that a new GM would choose to keep some people rather than try to hire an entire front office and coaching staff at once. Some now, some in a year.

Slint: shouldn’t more AAAA players consider going over and playing in the KBO if Eric Thames can get a 3 year deal?
Klaw: He got three years but $15 million, which isn’t even starter money. I don’t think he’s going to be very good at all – he was awful before he went to Korea, and the KBO is crazy hitter-friendly – but it’s not like he got a ton of cash. Ditching Carter for him was weird, though.

Tim: Could Reds actually get value back by trading Billy Hamilton? They could be trading at his peak – but what if he has another gear (5 win player rather than 3)? Could he fetch a guy like Conforto? (who’s stock is down and not an up the middle player)
Klaw: He hasn’t really developed at all as a hitter, and if you believe the main issue is lack of hand and wrist strength, then trade him now because that’s not likely to get much better.

Tom: Hey. I upped our family’s board game game using your recs: Ticket to Ride, Pandemic, Splendor, 7 Ronin, Pandemic, Agamemnon, and 7 Wonders. Thanks!
Klaw: That’s a strong collection.

Ben: In your write-up of the Cespedes deal, you suggested the Mets go out and get a true CF. That doesn’t seem like it’s happening. Given these remaining options, which do you think would be best: 1) Trade Bruce, have Lagares/Grandy platoon in CF with Conforto/Grandy in RF; or 2) Trade Grandy, have Lagares/Conforto in CF, and then Bruce in RF?
Klaw: I don’t think Granderson or Conforto can play CF. Conforto just isn’t that kind of fielder or athlete. Granderson hasn’t played it regularly since 2012 and wasn’t good then. So … I don’t know. Lagares is an elite defender but there’s no stick there. That’s why I wrote what I wrote – if they’re even thinking about Cespedes playing another 500 innings in center, they’re making a mistake.

Benjammin: What do the Mets do with Rosario after he torches Vegas? Move Cabrera to third? Also, is Cecchini going to make it at 2B? Thanks!
Klaw: Yes, move Cabrera to third or to New Jersey or something. He’s not a good defensive shortstop, hasn’t been for years. Cecchini’s throwing in the AFL was so bad I’m not sure where he can play now.

Tim (KC): Thoughts on New CBA?… personally I am disappointed that they dealt with only a few issues. But there is no more All-Star winner getting home-field.
Klaw: I’m on board with this.

Mikey: Are you as down on Giolito as some others are?
Klaw: Not at all. People like to be very reactive in this business.

Owen: No question here, just a longtime reader who would love to meet you at the winter meetings, time permitting.
Klaw: I’ll be there Monday to Thursday. If you see me, flag me down. I’m happy to say hi.

MJ: Keith have you seen the movie Zootopia? I watched it yesterday with my daughter and thought it was one of the best kids movies I’ve seen.
Klaw: Loved it. I’ve watched it twice. My daughter has watched it five times, at least. It’s brilliant, it’s a little sweet, it has a fantastic message, and of course it looks great. Jason Bateman’s voice work is incredible, too.

J: Do you consume all your music digitally or do you buy any cd’s or vinyl?
Klaw: All digital. I have a few vinyl records I’ve gotten as promos but I haven’t bought any.

Sean: Over the last few the weeks the local media (Philly) have promoted Scott Kingery. Is a potential long term solution at second for the Phillies?
Klaw: Yes, if he develops some more patience. Didn’t walk much in college, didn’t walk much in high-A (where he should have started last year – that was another strange decision).

addoeh: For Pete asking about not getting a paper magazine, do they still have the option of sending your magazine to a member of the military?
Klaw: I was told they discontinued that, which is a shame. Seemed like a nice way to send even a token gesture of support.

Anonymous: How do you think Domingo Acevedo’s offpseed pitches progressed this year and has your opinion of whether he can stay a SP changed at all?
Klaw: No shot.

Darren: Hi Keith, What are your thoughts on Dorssys Paulino. He seems to be able to hit, but not with a lot of power. He was also moved to the OF. Do you see him being able to play the infield or developing enough power to be a starter?
Klaw: Used to play short. Got too heavy. Not sure there’s much value there now.

Paul S.: Do you think Thames will be worth $5-$6 million per year? (Not counting the beard, which definitely has its own value!)
Klaw: I do not.

Van: I know it’s early, but who would you say are the top 3 offensive prospects in the 2017 draft?
Klaw: Chris and I ranked the top 30 prospects for the draft here:

That One Guy: Carrier in IN: Trump success or roadmap to tax breaks?
Klaw: Roadmap to corporate extortion.

EC: With Top Chef I’ve heard that a lot of actual top chefs don’t allow their employees to participate. I’ve heard Jose Andres doesn’t allow.
Klaw: Doesn’t seem like they’ve struggled to get talented contestants so far, though.

Matt: I know I sound stupid in not understanding the Monte Hall problem, but isn’t it two independent decisions? You make your first choice, not there. You then have two doors, and a 50/50 chance its behind either door. By choosing “not to change,” you are actually just making the decision to choose that door again. I don’t see this as a case of conditional probability, but of two independent events. I feel completely dense!
Klaw: They’re not independent events, though. Hall has given you information on your first decision by opening that door. He hasn’t changed the game – the car hasn’t moved. He’s essentially told you that you can revise your first choice to A or to B+C, in which case you’d always choose B+C.

Scott: Does Conforto to Phillies for Herrera make any sense for both teams?
Klaw: It makes sense for the Phillies if they want to rob the Mets blind.

Jimmy: What are your projections of TJ Zeuch? Reliever or potential back end starter?
Klaw: I think more likely reliever than starter. Maybe 60/40 odds. Don’t love the delivery or the track record.

Greg: What do you think about Max Fried? He looked dominant down the stretch. Is their #2 potential?
Klaw: Yep, I think that’s just right.

Jerry: Is the lack of playing time for Conforto due to the manager, a disbelief from the front office that he is an every day player, or a little of both? Is he potentially a guy who is traded for a modest package that makes the leap once he is in a new environment playing every day?
Klaw: I hear it’s largely the manager, coupled with Conforto himself developing some weakness on the front side because he was only facing RHP. Easy fix – play him every day and send Collins to manage Columbia for a year.

Ryan: Klaw, do you think a valid argument can be made that an over-prioritization of political correctness played a part in Trump’s victory? I saw you linked to the Colin Jost joke story, and as someone who considers themself socially progressive I still think his point is not wrong.
Klaw: I highly, highly doubt that that was a factor at all in Trump winning a few swing states. Is there any evidence whatsoever that people voted on that basis?

Joe: Using $/WAR has become the default method to evaluate free agent signings on the internet. But do teams actually look at free agent contract value through a similar filter? It just seems so overly simplistic, and the assumption that a team is always getting good value if they pay the correct $/WAR amount to a player just seems like a dumb assumption to me–it’s too far removed from any context.
Klaw: Don’t use $/WAR. Just don’t. It’s so flawed that I never use it, because value isn’t linear (roster spots are a scarce resource, scarcer than money) and because the utility curve for each team is going to vary wildly. An additional win is worth more to the Yankees than the Rays, and worth more to a team at 88 wins than a team at 68 wins or 98 wins.

Jimmy: What are your thoughts on Bo Bichette?
Klaw: I think he can really, really hit, and that he’s going to play somewhere in the infield, second or third.

Paul: Going through wedding registry items. Any good cooking knife recommendations?
Klaw: My gift guide for cooks is here:

Anonymous: Thank you for chat, Keith. Possible that Jahmai Jones of the Angels makes your top 100 prospect list next year? How do you like him?
Klaw: Possible. Best prospect in their system.

Justin: Aside from Reyes, who do you view as the top SP prospect in the Cardinal system? Flaherty?
Klaw: Flaherty over Fernandez, yes.

Steve: Any tips for increasing reading pace? I’m about 40 pages/hour, and would love to increase that in order to increase the number of books I can read each year. Also, solid Outkast quote to start the chat.
Klaw: I wouldn’t worry about pace. Read at the pace that is comfortable for you, where you’re enjoying it and are able to retain what you read. It seemed like the right day to quote that song.

Patrick: was Nick Williams’ multiple benchings for lack of hustle overblown? is he still a MLB regular or just a guy with tantalizing tools?
Klaw: I thought his manager handled it poorly, making it such a public issue.

Dan (Oregon): Just moved to the Portland metro area and trying to navigate through all of the coffee options here. What are some of your faves from Oregon? Thanks!
Klaw: heart coffee is one of my favorite roasters in the country.

Joe: What do you think about these dum-dums who say things like, “if I see you burning a flag I’ll beat the crap out of you” – an actual Senator or Congressman actually said that recently. It’s really just cloth, people. And it’s freedom of speech. And going to jail for assault does not give you a higher patriotism score.
Klaw: It’s freedom of speech, protected by the First Amendment and multiple court decisions. And yes, it’s just a piece of fabric. Also, if they start arresting people for this, I will join what I hope would be thousands or millions of others burning flags and uploading videos of it. Arrest us all. We know what the Constitution says.

Jebediah: Do you have an opinion on the relative worth of a Baking Steel to make pizza? Winter may be fast approaching outside, but the Steel evidently makes for oven spring!
Klaw: I use a stone for pizza and bread.

Wade: What is the best and most useful presents you remember getting from your wedding? (Hopefully it wasn’t veteran.) Trying to add stuff to our registry, but we are both in our 30s and already have a lot of things that you “need.”
Klaw: Stand mixer. Didn’t ask for a food processor, got one a year later, still using it. I think by now we’ve replaced most other stuff, but bear in mind that’s 21 years ago for us.

Frank: With regard to the 5M cap, I think it should allow small market teams to be much more competitive for talent as once the money is spent by others the team with money left will be that much more attractive to the player. I agree it’s not good for the players but it should help the small market teams a lot.
Klaw: That may be true, but why should the union help the small-market teams? Tell the large-market teams to do it.

JR: Did you ever finish the Night of, or did it fall of your radar?
Klaw: I have three episodes left. I just got caught up on a bunch of other things, then ripped through the OJ documentary, and now am trying to sneak in some top movies since it’s the month when all the good ones come out (screw you, Hollywood).

Owen: Also, I promise I won’t pants you a la Jake Peralta with every member of the Knicks.
Klaw: Oh God, it happened again!

John: The flag is just cloth, yep. And your wife’s wedding ring is just metal, so no biggie if she takes it off when she goes out at night.
Klaw: That’s correct, it’s just metal and compressed carbon. And she’s not my property, so if she wants to take it off, she can do that.

Mikey: Really? I get Flaherty over Fernandez, but Fernandez over Alcantara?
Klaw: Yes. Command, delivery, etc. – these all matter.

Nats Review Charlie: In reference to my earlier question – the only reasonable place for the Nats to improve (I say reasonable because I’m guessing Zim stays at 1B) is catcher – not sure if even Robles and Giolito gets you one as good as McCutchen is though
Klaw: Good point, and … good point too.

Ron: Would Dozier bring back de Leon from the Dodgers? Take more or less or would you not trade Dozier?
Klaw: I would include De Leon in a deal for Dozier, but I doubt that’s enough. Dozier’s really valuable.

Max G.: Klaw, any thoughts on how the Astros are going to play Bregman/Guriel(sp?)/Correa? (Other than what they absolutely should but won’t do, i.e. move Correa to third)
Klaw: You stole my response. Bergman at 3b, Gurriel in LF? I still haven’t given up on Reed as 1b.

Nick: Would a deal between Phillies/Cubs based around Velasquez or Nola for Schwarber be reasonable?
Klaw: Nola finished the year hurt, and Velasquez, while good, has yet to have a full healthy season in the pros.

Hugo Z: Do you think a hard cap on international spending will have a similar effect to what happens in the NFL with quarterback salaries vs. everyone else’s?
Klaw: You’re going to have to explain this like you’re talking to an idiot, because when it comes to the NFL, I’m an idiot.

Jeff: Thanks for being so outspoken about politics and Trump specifically. It’s a scary time, but you have a diverse reader base that need to hear someone standing up for basic ideas and principles that everyone should follow. You’re doing more than most journalists are doing, and it’s more their job to do than yours.
Klaw: You’re welcome. It’s funny – someone last week commented under the chat about keeping my “liberal agenda” out of it (even though this is my personal blog). My liberal agenda includes things like equality and civil rights, science-based policies, environmental protection and ensuring companies cover such externalities. I mean, I’m practically KLaw Marx.

addoeh: 21 years of marriage? Congrats, hope you two got drunk on your anniversary like a 21 year old would.
Klaw: No but for our 20th we went to St. Thomas by ourselves and got drunk on Cruzan for five days.

Mikey: Follow up on Fernandez/Alcantara….Not shooting down your assessment, more just shocked given the Alcantara “ace” potential comment you made earlier. Thanks.
Klaw: I understand now, thanks. I think Fernandez has a higher probability to be a valuable major-league starter, but Alcantara has the better “best case scenario” of the two.

Ryan: Thoughts on Eddy Julio Martinez after his first full year in the states.
Klaw: A little disappointed that he didn’t hit for more average in year one, but I’m hopeful that both he and Yusnier Diaz will make leaps in 2017 now that they’re here and acclimated.

Joe: Re: Monty Hall problem…I think it’s easier to understand it when you realize that there was 100% certainty that one of the doors you didn’t pick was always a loser. So when they selectively (not randomly) show you a goat, you don’t really have any new information probability-wise. They just showed you something you already knew was true, but tricked you into thinking it was new information.
Klaw: It’s a little bit of new information, in that beforehand you knew one of B or C was a loser, but not which one. It’s not new information in that you already knew at least one was a loser when you knew the odds of door A (your pick) were 1/3.

Quinn: Should the twins trade Dozier and what type of return could they get for him, that contract is nice.
Klaw: Yes, I don’t see any reason to keep him when they’re ready to rebuild now.

AAtown: If dodgers don’t resign hill, then don’t they come out big losers in the trade for he & Reddick? For what they gave up?
Klaw: No – they acquired two months of Hill and two months of Reddick. They didn’t acquire any rights beyond 2016.

Michael: Texas v. Johnson was a 5-4 SCOTUS decision. It’s not as cut and dry as you say.
Klaw: Isn’t this like the “first-ballot Hall of Famer” distinction? You’re in or you’re not. The plaque doesn’t change. Unless we get another SCOTUS decision, then the ruling and precedent are the same as they’d be if the decision had been 9-0.

Paul: Speaking of pizza, I made Kenji’s quick cast iron skillet tortilla crust pizza last night (made 3 of them in about 20 minutes). Wow was it good and extremely easy.
Klaw: You could do a lot worse in the kitchen than to listen to Kenji, Alton, and Ruhlman for all the basics.

Eddy: Does Derek Fisher ever make his debut with the Astros? Seems crowded. How does his offense profile?
Klaw: Probably trade bait. Has power, speed, but I’m concerned he won’t be a high contact guy. Also not a good outfielder.

JR: IIRC, Jon Singleton and his agents took a lot of heat for the club friendly contract he signed. With hindsight, sure looks like he made the right choice.
Klaw: Correct, and no doubt. You might argue the contract let him go to seed like he did, but from the player’s perspective, he got a successful outcome.

Stephan: Keith, as a Cubs fan can I be excited about Trevor Clifton?
Klaw: Yes, you have my permission.

Hugo Z: Sorry, should’ve been more clear…I think a hard cap wouldn’t hurt the Maitans of the world because some team will gamble the lion’s share of it’s money on them, but lesser players will get squeezed.
Klaw: Yes, I agree with that. Maitan still gets close to $5 million. The $1-2 million guys might get the shaft. But also there’s no Morejon deals any more – if you’re really worth $10 million, the cap appears to preclude that entirely.

Jake: I think one of the most unfortunate things of the many to come out of this election is how clear it is one party wants to keep people from voting and one wants as many people to participate as possible. And the side who wants to keep people from voting only offer anecdotal information when claiming there is widespread fraud. We have to stop this.
Klaw: I’ll end with this question/point, because it’s a great one. If you believe at all in a democratic system of government – and yes, we’re technically a republic – then this should disturb the hell out of you regardless of ideology or party affiliation. I was appalled when a few readers would respond to my tweets about states reducing polling stations or early voting by saying it was easy enough to vote anyway, so what’s the big deal? Either you want as many citizens to vote as there are citizens who wish to vote, or you do not want us to live in a functioning democracy. If you think your candidate’s or party’s path to victory lies in suppressing part of the vote, then I would suggest that the problem is the candidate’s or party’s platform. Let everyone have their say, and if you don’t like the outcome, then you try again in the next election. You don’t change the rules to make sure only people who think like you, look like you, pee like you, or pray like you get to vote.

Klaw: That’s all for this week – thank you as always for reading and for all of your questions. I will chat either Thursday or Friday next week depending on my travel back from the winter meetings.

Gift guide for cooks, 2016 edition.

As usual, this is a repost of the previous year’s list, with new items I’ve added clearly marked, and some minor edits to the rest. I rewrite these posts in full every few years when there’s enough new material to merit it. Enjoy and feel free to ask questions in the comments.

I’ve seen a few “Christmas gift guides for the cooks in your life!” over the last couple of years, but most of them are like this 2014 gem from Grub Street, with recommendations for things that no one could possibly need – a “rosemary stripper” (I have two of those; I call them “hands”); a “banana slicer” (use your paring knife, genius); a $140 toaster (makes toast); and a $1600 set of Thomas Keller-branded pans, which, unless he forged them personally out of pure adamantium, are a colossal fucking waste of money. These are not gifts to by the cook in your life; these are gifts to buy the person in your life who pretends to cook but really just likes playing with toys. Toys don’t make you a better chef; they just make you a less socially responsible one.

I do have a few pricier toys in my kitchen, but aside from one, they’re all highly functional, at the middle to low end of the price range for their jobs, and built to last a long time. I’ve had my chef’s knife for over a decade, my food processor for 17 years (my next upgrade – looking at this Cuisinart model), my Dutch oven for about eight years, and just replaced my 18-year-old stand mixer when we moved in 2013. You are free to call me cheap, but I think I’m just prudent. I’ll spend money in the kitchen if it gets me something I need. I will not spend money to get a famous name, a fancy design, or a paperweight to live at the back of a gadget drawer until we move again. If I can make do with something I already have in the house – binder clips, a (clean) putty knife, a (clean) paintbrush – I’ll gladly do that instead.

Therefore, what I recommend here – for your cheffy friends or for yourself – is largely what I own and use. If what I own isn’t available, or isn’t good value for the price, I recommend something else. I am also willing to answer any and all questions about these or other suggestions; if I include it here, that’s an endorsement that it’ll be money well spent. I’ve already posted my cookbook recommendations in a separate entry.

The most important tool for any cook is a good chef’s knife, and I love my Henckels 8″ chef’s knife, although I have a discontinued model with a different handle. . It’s a workhorse, has only needed professional sharpening once, and is a comfortable grip and weight for my rather small hands. However, it’s $55, and I doubt it’s worth the premium over the $30 Victorinox 8″ chef’s knife, which America’s Test Kitchen has long recommended and, therefore, so have I.

The basic knives any home cook must have are a chef’s knife, a paring knife, and a bread (serrated) knife. The bread knife is good for more than just slicing bread – serrated blades are safer for slicing tomatoes, and they’re excellent for chopping chocolate and other hard foods. I have another Henckels four-star model, also eight inches, but the same blade is available with a different handle for just $13. You might look at a 10” blade if you get a lot of large, artisanal loaves. Any strong paring knife will do, such as this OXO 3.5″ paring knife at $15. With a modicum of knife skills, you can tweak and hull strawberries with one of these without any risk to your fingers or waste of fruit. It’s also good for cutting citrus supremes, slicing apples and pears, pitting olives and cherries, and other fine-motor-skills work.

I do have two other knives I use frequently, but they’re not essential for most cooks. One is the santoku, a very sharp knife with a thin edge but wide body that’s ideal for slicing vegetables and hard fruits; I recommend a 7” blade, which you can get in this two-santoku Henckels set for $27.50 and just … I don’t know, regift the 5” version or something, because I can’t see any use for it. The boning knife I own, from Henckels, appears to be discontinued, but there’s another Henckels 5.5″ boning knife for $26 that looks like it has the same blade. A boning knife is ideal for breaking down a whole chicken – it’s substantially cheaper to buy a whole chicken (sometimes called a broiler-fryer, usually 3-5 pounds total weight) and cut it into parts, and you get the bones to make stock – or for deboning other cuts of meat like short ribs. Some folks recommend a flexible blade instead, but I have never used that kind so I can’t give an opinion.

I finally caved and bought a home knife sharpener last year, buying this Chef’s Choice Diamond Hone 3 Stage Sharpener, a manual sharpener that turned out to be both easy to use and very effective; I sharpened every knife I own and even a few pairs of scissors, including the kitchen shears some of you saw me using to spatchcock this year’s Thanksgiving turkey. (Note: I think this may be why my kitchen shears didn’t work so well this year.)

My pots and pans aren’t a single set any more; I have some remnants from an All-Clad anodized aluminum set I got with rewards points in 2001, but have swapped out certain pieces to get better nonstick (coated) skillets. What you really should get for your loved one (you may include yourself in that category) is a a 12″ Lodge cast-iron skillet, an absolute workhorse that can handle about 90% of what I need from a skillet or a saute pan. I still use a nonstick skillet for egg dishes, and a saucier (sadly one that’s no longer made) for sauces or custards, but the Lodge skillet is past a decade old and just keeps getting better. The work of seasoning them is nowhere near as arduous as you’ve heard.

New for 2016: I got a Lodge 10″ carbon steel skillet (over 50% off right now, at $21) last Christmas, and I love it. It’s not as nonstick as the cast-iron one, which I’ve had for years and thus has built up more of a coating, but for getting a pan rocket-hot quickly and working fast on something small, it’s great. The only thing I haven’t had luck with in this skillet is eggs, which stick to pretty much anything non-Teflon if I’m the chef.

If you want to splurge on something, get an enameled cast-iron Dutch oven, great for soups, stews, braises, deep-frying, jam-making, and caramelizing huge batches of onions. Cast-iron doesn’t distribute heat well, but it holds heat for a long time. These pots are heavy, but I use mine for every saucepan duty that doesn’t involve boiling water or cooking grains on their own. They go stove to oven (as do the skillets) and can take the hours of low heating required for a proper braise. I own a Le Creuset that I got on sale at an outlet store because the color was discontinued; if you’re not quite that fortunate, try the 7.5 quart Lodge model for $86.

I upgraded my stockpot last year with this $30 Excelsteel 16 Quart Stainless Steel Stockpot. I make stock constantly throughout the year; I buy whole chickens, break them down myself, and freeze the carcasses and necks for future stocks. I also made a turkey stock after Thanksgiving with the backbone, neck, and the picked-clean roasted carcass, and the result was so full of gelatin that it was solid at room temperature. (It made an unbelievably rich turkey and soba noodle soup.) I needed a good stockpot since my previous one’s pseudo-nonstick finish had started to fade; this pot is also taller and heavier so it holds the heat in more effectively and I can do a double batch with two chicken carcasses and plenty of aromatics. I usually have to get at the interior bottom with a little Bon Ami, though. It’s also been my go-to pot for sous-vide cooking, since it’s deep enough to hold my circulator.

I don’t own a proper mandolin slicer, but I do pretty well with a handheld mandolin for under $20 that works great for things like root-vegetable chips or thinly slicing onions. I use my digital instant-read thermometer almost every night, and I’ve run through at least three of them over the last ten years. Amazon tells me that I bought my Microplane classic grater in November of 2003, and I’ve had their coarse grater for almost that long. The former is great for zesting citrus fruits or grating nutmeg; the latter is ideal for creating a snowfall of hard cheese over a pasta dish. I now own four silicone baking mats, two of which are amazon brand, now listed at two for $14 but which I got cheaper on Prime Day this summer.

I own two scales – a chef I’m friends with on Twitter made fun of me for this – one, this AWS Digital Pocket Scale for weights up to about 2 kg, which is ideal for precise measurements like grams of coffee (more on that in a moment), and a larger scale that’s long discontinued. This $13 Ozeri scale looks like a more than adequate replacement, measuring up to 12 kg; I rarely need to measure more than about two pounds of anything, maybe a little more for some large-batch baking but that’s about it. You need at least one good scale if you’re serious about baking, though; the best bread and pastry recipes all use grams, not cups or liters. I finally killed my digital candy/frying thermometer this year, replacing it with an old-fashioned, $7.50 analog frying thermometer. I use it for jam, macarons, and my various deep-frying experiments (see the sous-vide discussion below). You absolutely must have one of these to make caramel, any kind of jam or preserves, or true buttercream frosting.

New for 2016: It’s a unitasker, but the Twist’n Sprout – yes, whoever named that should be fired into the sun – does core Brussels sprouts faster and less perilously than a paring knife could. There are two sharp blades at opposite sides of the device, and once you’ve trimmed the very bottom of the sprout, you impale it on the central spike, then twist the sprout to remove as much or as little of the core as you’d like. I used it to get through two-plus pounds of Brussels sprouts at Thanksgiving this year and it absolutely saved me some time.

Other things I always appreciate getting or often end up buying for myself: Wooden spatulas (not spoons), silicone spatulas, good (not decorative) metal measuring spoons, Pyrex or similar measuring cups for liquids (never measure liquids in a plastic cup designed for measuring solids).

I don’t have this exact brand/model, but I love having a few silicone ingredient cups in the kitchen. I use one for measuring and pouring out coffee grounds, and I often have another one next to the stove with salt or freshly ground pepper or toasted sesame seeds to add to something right before serving.

Now, for the expensive stuff:

* New for 2016: I’ve gone full geek, getting an Anova sous-vide immersion circulator (pot not included) and using it frequently for cooking chicken legs, chicken breasts, steak, and pork. Serious Eats has many recipes for it, and I’ve used their chicken thighs recipe many times, often cooking entire chicken legs that way. (I’ve discovered that, if you can handle some spattering, you can take the drumsticks, pat them dry, then bread and deep-fry them for some of the juiciest fried chicken you’ll ever taste.) I’ve cooked skirt steak, which can be tough even when cooked medium-rare, sous-vide and it melted in our mouths. Sous-vide cooking takes time, and some up-front investment – I caved and bought a FoodSaver vacuum-sealer, although you can do it with zip-top bags too – but once you use it you’ll find it indispensable.

* I’m looking to upgrade, as I mentioned above, but I believe this Cuisinart classic 7-Cup food processor is what I own; we got ours in 1996, and in all that time I’ve just had to replace the plastic bowl, which cracked during a move. At $130, it is an essential, at least in my mind; it makes so many things easier, from pie doughs and biscuits to pesto and hummus and nut butters and mayonnaise (although I do that by hand because I’m a wacko) … and the pumpkin pie I make every Thanksgiving.

* I have this Vitamix 1782 TurboBlend “food preparing machine” (it’s a blender, stupid), and it’s amazing. I can make smooth vegetable soups with it, no cream required; don’t toss those broccoli stalks, just peel, quarter, and roast them, then blend them with some vegetable stock and season to taste, maybe with some basil oil and toasted pumpkin seeds on top. I used it at Thanksgiving 2015 to make the carrot soup in Hugh Acheson’s The Broad Fork. The blender is down to $328 (from four bills), but that’s too much if you’re just making milkshakes and smoothies (and there is nothing wrong with just making milkshakes and smoothies). You’ll probably be fine with just a basic blender and the food processor.

* I have the 5-quart KitchenAid stand mixer, which is about $270 right now. I kind of wish I had the next model up, mostly for bread-baking, which is still a bit of a chore for this model, but it’s great for everything else – mixing up cookie dough, brownie batter, quick breads, whipped cream, and Italian meringues (for macarons). The pasta-maker attachment is overpriced, but it does the job, and the grinder attachment has been good for me in a handful of uses, especially for turning stale bread into bread crumbs.

* Coffee is my big kitchen weakness, at least when it comes to spending money; I’m fortunate to have a few friends in the industry (whom I met through social media) who work for direct-trade roasters and have tipped me off to good sources of coffee and helped me pay for the gear I own, which is wonderful but expensive. The Baratza Virtuoso burr grinder is the least expensive grinder of its kind and caliber; when my first one had an issue with the motor, I sent a quick video of it jamming to Baratza and had a new machine within two weeks. I do make pour-over coffee at home using this Hario V60 ceramic dripper, but my preference is espresso, for which I use a Rancilio Silvia machine that is a wonder. The boiler is huge, so it bounces back quickly between shots and you can heat up the steam wand before your shots go cold. (You can probaby beat that price by $30-40 if you shop around.) If you get your ratios right – for me it’s 17.5 to 19 grams per double shot, depending on the bean and roast – you’ll get great crema, 30-32 grams of output in 25-30 seconds, with almost no bad pulls. I use it every morning and I miss it when I travel. I weigh the beans, grounds, and output on the AWS digital scale I mentioned above, which came recommended by a barista at Lord Windsor Roasters in Long Beach, California.

Cookbook recommendations, 2016.

This year’s cookbook post is pretty much last year’s cookbook post with a couple of little changes up top – one new rec, one book I want because the author is great, and then the same standbys I always recommend. I’ve grouped my suggestions into categories: The essentials, which any home cook regardless of experience level should own; the advanced books for expert home cooks; a few cookbooks from Top Chef-affiliated folks that I recommend; and bread-baking books, all by one author because I’ve never needed any others. My gift guide for cooks is in a separate post, detailing essential and frivolous toys for the chef in your life.

New for 2016

I added just one new cookbook of note to my collection since last year’s post – I’ve acquired others, but there’s only one I can really recommend. J. Kenji Lopez-Alt’s mammoth The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science, named for Kenji’s acclaimed and indispensable column over at Serious Eats, is a must for any advanced or aspiring home cook. Unlike many of the books here, The Food Lab is a better resource for its text than its recipes – I’ve made a bunch of dishes from the book, with a few that just didn’t work out (e.g., the pork shoulder ragout), but every page seems to have something to teach you. The one caution I’ll offer is that it doesn’t include any sous-vide recipes, which is something Kenji does a lot on Serious Eats’ site, although he does have a section on replicating the sous-vide technique using cheaper materials like a portable cooler.

The book I don’t have yet but am hoping to get in the next, say, 27 days, is Alton Brown’s latest, Everyday Cook, which I think is his first cookbook that isn’t somehow branded with the Good Eats title. I’m a longtime fan of that show and of Brown in general – many of his recipes remain staples in my kitchen – but I haven’t used his books much because they’ve often repeated what was on TV. This book looks like a departure for him, and he’s said he was able to do some stuff here he couldn’t do on television (because lawyers). Plus I just enjoy his humor and writing style.


There are two cookbooks that I insist any home cook have. One is the venerable Joy of Cooking, revised and altered through many editions (I own the 1997, now out of print), but still the go-to book for almost any common dish you’re likely to want to make. The recipes take a very easy-to-follow format, and the book assumes little to no experience or advanced technique. I still use it all the time, including their basic bread stuffing (dressing) recipe every Thanksgiving, altered just with the addition of a diced red bell pepper.

The other indisputable must-have cookbook is, of course, Ruhlman’s Twenty, by the best food writer going today, Michael Ruhlman. The book comprises twenty chapters, each on a technique or core ingredient, with a hundred recipes, lots of essays to explain key concepts or methods, and photographs to help you understand what you’re cooking. It’s my most-used cookbook, the first cookbook gift I give to anyone looking to start a collection, and an absolute pleasure to read and re-read. Favorite recipes include the seared pork tenderloin with butter and more butter; the cured salmon; the homemade mayonnaise (forget the stuff in the jar, it’s a pale imitation); the pulled pork; all three duck recipes; the scrambled eggs with goat cheese (using a modified double-boiler method, so you get something more like custard than rubber); and the homemade bacon. I’m trying his weekday coq au vin recipe tonight, too. Many of these recipes appear again in his more recent book, Egg: A Culinary Exploration of the World’s Most Versatile Ingredient, along with more egg basics and a lot of great dessert recipes; and Twenty itself builds on Ruhlman’s Ratio, which shows you master formulas for things like doughs and sauces so you can understand the fundamentals of each recipe and extend as you see fit.

I’ve long recommended Baking Illustrated as the perfect one-book kitchen reference for all things baked – cookies, cakes, pies, breads, and more. It’s full of standards, tested to ensure that they will work the first time. You’ll need a scale to get maximum use from the book. I use their pie crust recipe, their peach pie recipe, their snickerdoodles recipe (kids love it, but moms seem to love it even more…), and I really want to try their sticky toffee pudding recipe. The prose can be a little cloying, but I skip most of that and go right to the recipes because I know they’ll succeed the first time. That link will get you the original book from the secondary market; it has been rewritten from scratch and titled The Cook’s Illustrated Baking Book, but I can’t vouch for it as I haven’t seen the new text.

If I know someone already has Ruhlman’s Twenty, my next gift choice for them is Nigel Slater’s Tender: A Cook and His Vegetable Patch, a book about vegetables but not strictly vegetarian. (There’s a lot of bacon here.) Each vegetable gets its own section, with explanations on how to grow it, how to choose it at the market, a half-dozen or more basic ways to cook it, and then a bunch of specific recipes, some of which are just a paragraph and some of which are a full page with glorious pictures accompanying them. The stuffed peppers with ground pork is a near-weekly occurrence in this house, and the warm pumpkin scone is the only good reason to buy and cook an actual pumpkin. I own but have barely cooked from his sequel on fruit, Ripe: A Cook in the Orchard, because it’s more focused on desserts than savory applications.

Another essential if you want to cook more vegetables is Hugh Acheson’s 2015 book The Broad Fork, which has become the first book I consult when I have a vegetable and am not sure what I want to do with it. Acheson conceived the book in response to a neighbor’s question about what the hell to do with the kohlrabi he got in a CSA box, and the whole book works like that: You have acquired some Vegetable and need to know where to start. Organized by season and then by plant, with plenty of fruits and a few nuts mixed in for good measure, the book gives you recipes and ideas by showing off each subject in various preparations – raw, in salads, in soups, roasted, grilled, pureed, whatever. There are main course ideas in here as well, some with meat or fish, others vegetarian or vegan, and many of the multi-part dishes are easy to deconstruct, like the charred-onion vinaigrette in the cantaloupe/prosciutto recipe that made a fantastic steak sauce. Most of us need to eat more plants anyway; Acheson’s book helps make that a tastier goal. It’s also witty, as you’d expect from the slightly sardonic Canadian if you’ve seen him on TV.

You know, a lot of people will tell you go get Julia Child’s classic books on French cuisine, but I find the one I have (Mastering the Art) to be dated and maddeningly unspecific. Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom is a slimmer, much more useful book that focuses on the basics – her explanation of vinaigrettes is still the gold standard, and her gift for distilling recipes and techniques into simple little explanations shines here without the fuss of three-day recipes for coq au vin. Oh, that’s in here too, but she does it in two and a half hours.


The The Flavor Bible isn’t actually a cookbook, but a giant cross-referencing guide where each ingredient comes with a list of complementary ingredients or flavors, as selected by a wide range of chefs the authors interviewed to assemble the book. It’s the book you want to pull out when your neighbor gives you a few handfuls of kale or your local grocery store puts zucchini on sale and you don’t know what to do with them. Or maybe you’re just tired of making salmon the same way and need some fresh ideas. The book doesn’t tell you how to cook anything, just what else to put on the plate. Spoiler: Bacon and butter go with just about everything.

Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty is an outstanding vegetable-focused cookbook that uses no meat ingredients (but does use dairy and eggs), although Ottolenghi’s restaurant uses meats and he offers a few suggestions on pairing his recipes with meat dishes. The recipes here are longer and require a higher skill level than those in Tender, but they’re restaurant-quality in flavor and presentation, including a mushroom ragout that I love as a main course over pappardelle with a poached egg (or two) on top and my favorite recipe for preparing Belgian endives (a pinch of sugar goes a long way).

Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery cookbook ($10 for Kindle right now) is is easily the best baking book I’ve ever seen, but unlike Baking Illustrated, the recipes are written for people who are more skilled and incredibly serious about baking. Ingredients are measured to the gram, and the recipes assume a full range of techniques. It has the best macaron recipe I’ve ever found – close second is I Love Macarons, suggested to me by Richard Blais’ pastry chef at the Spence, Andrea Litvin – and the Bouchon book also the homemade Oreo recipe I made for Halloween (but you need black cocoa to do it right, and I use buttercream as the filling instead of their unstable white-chocolate ganache).

Bobby Flay has an absurd number of cookbooks out there, but the one I like is from his flagship restaurant Mesa Grill, which includes the signature items (including the blue and yellow cornbread) and a broad cross-section of dishes. There’s no instruction here at all, however, just a lot of recipes, many of which have an absurdly long list of ingredients.

For the really hardcore, Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen is an essential kitchen reference, full of explanations of the chemistry of cooking that will make you a smarter cook and help you troubleshoot many problems at the stove. I haven’t read it straight through – it’s 700-plus pages – but I’ll go to the index and pull out some wisdom as needed. It also explains why some people (coughmecough) never acquired the taste for strongly-flavored cheeses.

April Bloomfield’s A Girl and Her Pig has the duck fat-fried potato recipe that got my daughter hooked on the dish, as well as a good selection of staple sauces, dressings, and starches to go along with the numerous meat dishes, including some offal recipes, one of which (made from minced pig’s heart and liver, with bacon, onion, and breadcrumbs) can’t be named here.

Top Chef Division

Richard Blais’ Try This at Home has become a staple in my kitchen both for about a half-dozen specific recipes in here that we love (sweet potato gnocchi, lemon curd chicken, arroz con pollo, sous-vide chicken breast) and for the creativity it inspires. Blais has lots of asides on techniques and ingredients, and if you actually read the text instead of just blindly following the recipes, you’ll get a sense of the extensibility of the basic formulas within the book, even though he isn’t as explicit about it as Ruhlman is. His second book, So Good, comes out in May 2017.

Hugh Acheson’s first book, A New Turn in the South, and Top Chef season one winner Harold Dieterle’s Harold Dieterle’s Kitchen Notebook are also regulars in my cookbook rotation. Acheson’s book reads the way he speaks, so that it comes off more like you’re hanging out with the guy, talking food, rather than taking instruction. His bacon-wrapped whole fish recipe is unbelievable, more for the powerful aromatics (winner, best use of fennel) than for the bacon itself. Dieterle’s book requires some harder-to-find items, but his side essays on specific ingredients run from the mundane to the esoteric and drop a ton of knowledge on how to choose and how to use. My particular struggle with both books is that they use a lot of seafood, with Dieterle’s including a ton of shellfish; my wife is allergic to shellfish, so I don’t even bring that into the house any more, which requires some substitutions and means there are some recipes I just have to set aside.


I’ve owned and given away or sold a lot of bread-baking books, because nothing has been able to beat the two masterworks by baker/instructor Peter Reinhart, The Bread Baker’s Apprentice and Whole Grain Breads. Reinhart’s books teach you how to make artisan or old-world breads using various starters, from overnight bigas to wild-yeast starters you can grow and culture on your countertop. If that seems like a little much, his Artisan Breads Every Day takes it down a notch for the novice baker, with a lot of the same recipes presented in a simpler manner, without so much emphasis on baker’s formulas, and is a steal at $20.00.

Mildred Pierce.

I loved James Cain’s noir thriller The Postman Always Rings Twice, and the film adaptation of his novel Double Indemnity is one of my favorite movies of all time, so when I saw his novel Mildred Pierce on sale at Changing Hands in October I picked it up knowing nothing about it other than that HBO had adapted it into a miniseries. It’s a complete departure from those other Cain novels, in theme and in prose style, and in this case the villain isn’t a protagonist but the main character’s narcissist daughter, who contrives to get whatever she wants even if she has to ruin her own mother to get it.

The novel opens with Mildred and her husband, Bert, separating as she kicks him out because of his refusal to stop seeing his mistress, who lives in the same development of Pierce Homes. Bert had been flying high financially until the 1929 crash, losing almost everything because of his decision to invest all of his cash in AT&T stock, but since he was ruined he’s refused to get any sort of job, exacerbating Mildred’s dissatisfaction with him. After he leaves, she tries to support herself and their two daughters, Veda and Ray, by baking and selling pies, but eventually has to get a waitressing job that she considers a little beneath her and has to hide from Veda, her older daughter, a budding sociopath who loathes her mother and the working-class life she’s been handed.

Mildred eventually rises to the point where she opens her own restaurant, then turns it into a small chain of restaurants around greater Los Angeles, but still can’t satisfy Veda and ends up in a couple of disastrous dalliances of her own. Mildred is a strong central character, a feminist in her time who doesn’t need a man to support her and who’s willing to use men to suit her own purposes, but who’s attracted to feckless men who drag her down. She has initiative and a strong work ethic, but lacks the kind of high breeding that Veda, for reasons never explained, believes she herself possesses. Ultimately, Mildred’s choices in men and her subversion of her own priorities to please Veda are her undoing, and the successful post-marriage life she’s created for herself collapses of her own bad decisions.

I found Mildred Pierce a tougher read even than contemporary novels that involve a murder, because there’s such a clear sense that Mildred is heading for catastrophe, one in large part of her own making. Her need for Veda to love her is itself pathological, and she lacks any capacity to see that her own daughter cares nothing at all for her, only for herself. Mildred builds a small business empire, and loses it in a futile effort to make Veda love her. Cain seems to have some empathy for his main character for the first two-thirds of the book, but when she launches her last scheme to gain her daughter’s love and respect, the tone shifts and the admiring language around Mildred’s business savvy (and good fortune) disappears. If Pierce has a real flaw, however, it’s that she’s not quite smart enough for what she wants to achieve, and I can’t see looking down on a character for a lack of intelligence the way we might for a character who’s greedy or heartless, like Veda.

Cain’s prose in Postman is descriptive but stark, and it works for a dark novel about murder and betrayal. Here, his descriptive prose still serves him well – I give the man credit, he knew something about food – but the sparse, almost emotionless writing doesn’t match what’s happening on the page. This isn’t a noir novel, but the writing has too much noir in it for the subject matter, and the lack of a second strongly-developed character besides Mildred (Veda is true to life but very one-note) made the book a slower read than it should have been. If you’re interested in Cain’s writing, go with The Postman Always Rings Twice instead.

Next up: Rachel Joyce’s 2012 novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, a recommendation from my friend Adnan Virk.

Castles of Mad King Ludwig app.

The app version of Castles of Mad King Ludwig is a very rich implementation of the game, with a lengthy tutorial and an involved, challenging solo campaign. The physical game is one of the top 100 games on Boardgamegeek, although after playing the app for several hours, I’m starting to think that I love the app more than I like the game itself.

Castles of Mad King Ludwig takes the very common mechanic of “build some stuff, collect some bonus cards, build stuff to max out the cards” that is in more games than I could even count and adds a layer of puzzle-completion on top of that. Players select room tiles from the display to build out the castles on their boards, but space is somewhat limited, and the points you get from placing a room depend on where you place it – specifically to what type of room or rooms you connect the new tile. Completing a room tile, which means connecting it successful through all doors (little spaces) on the tile’s edges, brings a different reward or bonus depending on the room type. There are seven room types plus stairs and hallways – you need stairs to build basement rooms, which can be as ridiculous as the mold room or the bottomless pit – but the biggest bonus comes from completing orange utility rooms, which have just one door (reducing future expansion options) and give you another bonus card for end-game scoring.

Part of my dislike for the game is aesthetic. You are filling out a puzzle without completing it: you will often block doorways, which means you don’t complete those tiles for bonuses, and also means the resulting castle is ungainly. And part is that the sheer variety of tile types, shapes, and sizes (size does matter, here, Donald) means that with just seven tiles on display for purchase at any time, you’re frequently left at the mercy of the market, like in Alhambra, which makes any kind of planning ahead difficult. The best strategies are to leave the maximum number of options open on your board, or to get really lucky.

Castles of Mad King Ludwig screenshot

The app, however, does a great job of implementing this game’s complexity. There are just so many rules to understand here around the different room types, and the app’s very detailed tutorial doesn’t just lay them out, but has you play through a series of mini-games with specific goals to teach you the game’s mechanics. The campaign is pretty difficult – you often have to win against one or more AI opponents and meet two other tough criteria, or to reach three criteria in a solo game – and thus serves as a further teaching tool as well as an enjoyable challenge. I do find some of the text in the rooms hard to read before I zoom in on my old iPad 2, and I wish the pass button were located away from the rotate and cancel buttons, but those are minor, especially the first point, which I assume is less of a problem on better screens. The AI players seem strong enough to me, a novice player, although there’s a certain amount of game-theory stuff (e.g., knowing I’m unlikely to take a certain tile) that no AI player in any app can do.

Returning to the mechanics of the game itself, one aspect that was novel (to me at least) was that in each round, the first player gets to rearrange the five to seven tiles on the market across the seven spaces, each of which has a price from one coin up to fifteen. Other players buy tiles by paying the first player, not the bank. That player then goes last in the purchasing phase, so s/he gets to take in a bunch of coins and can manipulate the market to try to make other players pay more for tiles they want, or to try to rid the market of tiles s/he doesn’t want. I think that would make playing the game in person against multiple opponents a very different experience from playing via an app or playing against a single opponent, because your decision set would include how to maneuver the tiles to best suit you and deal any disadvantages to other players.

Castles of Mad King Ludwig lists for $6.99 on the iTunes app storeand on the amazon Android store. I received a review copy from the publishers, but I’d say I’ve gotten well more than $7 worth of value from it given how many times I’ve played it just working through the solo campaign.

Stick to baseball, 11/26/16.

Chris Crawford and I ranked and wrote up the top 30 prospects for the 2017 draft, with Vandy outfielder Jeren Kendall at #1. I also wrote posts for Insiders on the Segura/Walker trade, on the Brett Cecil & Andrew Cashner contracts and other moves, and on the Astros’ moves last week. I also held a Klawchat on Tuesday, in advance of the holiday.

Over at Paste I reviewed the new Martin Wallace game Via Nebula, a great, family-level route-building game that we found simple to learn and quick to play.

You can preorder my upcoming book, Smart Baseball, on amazon. Also, please sign up for my more-or-less weekly email newsletter.

And now, the links…