Sabernomics interview.

JC Bradbury of Sabernomics fame did a Q&A with me, and it’s up now on his blog. We talk about life in baseball, the Braves, and a little bit about my non-baseball interests.

Pasta alla Carbonara, and why Giada is a bubblehead.

So I was looking for a new recipe for pasta alla carbonara, a common dish from central Italy where beaten eggs are whisked into freshly cooked pasta to create a sauce right before serving, and a little Googling came up with this recipe from David Leite, which I made tonight. It was quick, easy, authentic (no extra ingredients – more on that in a moment), and delicious. The only changes I made were to use 3 eggs without the extra yolk, and to make the sauce in the pasta pot rather than the skillet; stirring a pound of cooked pasta in a skillet is treacherous, and one thing you need to do to keep the eggs from scrambling is to keep the pasta moving. That’s just easier to do in a big pot than in a skillet, especially one with flared sides.

One other hit on page one of my Google results was this recipe by the Big Giant Head Girl, Giada de Laurentiis. Check the fourth ingredient: 2.5 cups of whipping cream. Say it with me, folks: There is no cream in carbonara sauce. It is creamy, but contains no cream. So Giada isn’t authentic, but we knew that already from the first time we heard her say spa-ghee-tee or open a jar of store-bought sauce. What’s worse is how incredibly unhealthy she’s made this dish: One pound of pasta plus one pound of chicken should mean six to eight servings, and by my calculations, her Chicken Carbonara has 35 to 40 grams of fat per serving (at six servings), two-thirds of which came from the whipping cream she added because she’s lazy. At least Raechel Ray can cook a little, but what the heck does Giada have swimming around in that enormous head of hers?

Picking on Bill.

I’m an avowed Bill Simmons fan, but I have to point this one out:

Reason No. 12,349 why I love the NBA: In honor of Friday night’s historic Yi-Yao matchup, I successfully convinced the Sports Gal to order Chinese food and watched the first quarter while eating General Tso’s Chicken.

Um, Bill, General Tso’s Chicken is about as Chinese as I am. Maybe less so. (Sugar has always been expensive in China since the country had to import it, so it’s very unlikely that they would have used it in a savory dish like this one. The leading theory is that the dish we know was invented in the US in the 1970s.) Next time, try the twice-cooked pork belly if you want to get your zhen zhongguo fan on.

Disneyworld eats.

The perks of working at a Disney subsidiary include discounts at some Disneyworld restaurants, and stays at hotels on the property when I have to go there for business. Since the GM meetings were held at a hotel just outside the northern entrance to Walt Disney World, I stayed at the Animal Kingdom Lodge and ate all my meals within the property (thereby putting my per diems back into the company).

Raglan Road is by far our favorite restaurant in Walt Disney World. A celebrity-chef venture involving Kevin Dundon, one of the top celebrity chefs in Ireland, and amed after a poem by Patrick Kavanagh, Raglan Road pretends to be an authentic Irish pub, but in reality it’s far too upscale in décor and food – not that either is a bad thing. The Guinness on tap is served at just the right temperature (that is, not too cold), and the upscale twists on some classic Irish comfort foods are excellent. Their shepherd’s pie is pretty close to the standard recipe, with a generous portion of lightly spiced lamb/beef mixture sitting below whipped mashed potatoes. Their take on bangers-and-mash includes a small dollop of their beef stew as a sauce, and the pork sausages (bangers) are outstanding. Even the Irish soda bread (no raisins!) and the olive-oil-and-Guinness-reduction that come before the meal are excellent. And the “bread and butter pudding,” served with butterscotch sauce and crrème Anglaise, is easily the best bread pudding I’ve ever had, with the bread still firm despite a thorough soaking in custard, and both sauces good enough to drink straight from the creamers.

We ate several meals at Boma, the buffet-style restaurant at the Animal Kingdom Lodge. Breakfast was mostly straightforward, with a mix of standard American breakfast fare (nothing special) and some African-influenced dishes, including a sausage-and-biscuit skillet dish with a spicy light-brown sauce and fluffy Southern-style biscuits that was out of this world. They also offer a “jungle juice” – just a blend of orange, pineapple, and guava juices – that tastes mostly of guava, which is fine by me because guava juice is naturally very sweet. Their pastry selection is strong, with scones, apple turnovers, banana bread, and four kinds of muffins (the orange bran muffins were the best), all clearly baked that morning or overnight.

Their dinner buffet has a huge menu of choices, leaning more towards African food (or African-influenced food), including bobotie (a South African tamale pie, with an egg topping and dried fruits mixed in with the meat), Moroccan couscous, cardamom-spiced pork, carved prime rib (get the ends), fufu, and so on, as well as some American choices for kids and fussy eaters. Their signature desserts are “zebra domes” and “tiger domes,” little fondant-filled chocolate domes with a hint of liqueur, but we preferred the chocolate mousse and the peach crumble (a touch heavy on the nutmeg, though). I was most impressed by the fact that the savory dishes are strongly flavored, unlike a lot of restaurants aiming for a broad market, and I never had to reach for the salt shaker.

The problem with Boma is that it’s not cheap – $26 per adult for dinner, $17 per adult for breakfast – and unless you’re a huge quantity eater or you have an employee discount, it probably won’t pay. Also, if you’re going for dinner, make a reservation ahead of time, as they’re sold out most nights. One minor bonus – about half the staff come from either north Africa or sub-Saharan Africa, and we chatted up one server from Botswana, asking her if she was familiar with Alexander McCall Smith’s books to see if they presented an authentic picture of the country. (Answer: She hadn’t read the books, but told us they had just filmed a movie based on the first book right near her apartment in Gaborone.)

The Animal Kingdom Lodge has one quick-service restaurant, called the Mara, offering all three meals. The Mara has a large refrigerated case with drinks, yogurts (packaged and in parfaits), puddings/cakes, and so on, and they offer a short menu of hot foods. Their breakfasts were greasy, and the dinner selection wasn’t great except for one option – the roasted half-chicken with (hot) couscous, a Moroccan-style dish that was delicious albeit a bit overcooked. They offer French fries or a cold couscous salad as side options for their other dishes, like hamburgers and fried chicken strips. It’s buried within the hotel, so it’s not worth seeking out.

The Earl of Sandwich is a Panera-style sandwich place at Downtown Disney, and they serve panini on a homemade English-muffin bread that is out of this world. The list of sandwich options is huge, but the fillings are mostly pre-sliced or pre-cooked; I went with a Caribbean jerk sandwich with chicken (pre-cooked), bell peppers, sliced banana peppers, and a jerk sauce that turned out to be mayo-based. But the bread was delicious, and my wife liked her Caprese salad sandwich, which had just the traditional fresh mozzarella, fresh basil, and sliced tomatoes, with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. The Earl also offers salads and wraps, and for breakfast they have egg sandwiches and yogurt parfaits.

While we were down in Orlando, the Epcot Food & Wine Festival was just wrapping up its six-week run, so after the GM meetings ended we took the afternoon to check it out. The World Showcase part of Epcot is lined with food stands and a few shopping kiosks representing every country with a permanent pavilion, as well as separate stands for Spain, Chile, Argentina, the Dominican Republic, Peru, Ireland, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Oklahoma (Native American foods), India, Poland, Turkey, Greece, and the Champagne region of France (selling wines and champagne truffles). Just about everything we ate was good; the portions are very small and run $2.50-$6 for savory dishes and as little as $1.50 for desserts. Hits included “shrimp on the Barbie” (grilled marinated shrimp) from Australia, mofongo (mashed yucca with pork cracklings) and more grilled shrimp from the DR, a beef empanada from Argentina, and spanikopita from Spain. The papas con chorizo from Spain were more like a stew with a heavy tomato flavor, and the “boxty” potato pancake from Ireland was greasy and lukewarm, although the six-ounce Guinness hit the spot. I didn’t try the bobotie at the South Africa pavilion, but I did have it at Boma, and it was excellent despite the presence of raisins. My wife gave high marks to the chilaquiles from the Mexico stand, but since they were smothered in cheese, I passed. The apple strudel at Germany tasted great but the dough became a bit tough from sitting for so long, and the ginger ice cream at China was very good; we never go to Epcot without slipping into the Patisserie at the France Pavilion for a chocolate mousse. The Food & Wine Festival ran from September 28th to November 11th this year, and I hope they expand it next year so it doesn’t overlap so perfectly with the MLB playoffs.

White Teeth.

UPDATE: This review is from 2007, when I first read the book. I’ve since revised my view of the book and have it on my top 100.

Zadie Smith’s White Teeth – another entry in the TIME 100 x – gets the dreaded “first novel” qualification: It’s excellent for a first novel, with metaphor and thematic depth that many novelists can’t reach through an entire career. But like a lot of first novels, it’s sloppy and disjointed, and perhaps a bit ambitious for a first work. It was an announcement of the arrival of a great voice, but its readability doesn’t quite match its scope or its raw intelligence.

White Teeth‘s nonlinear plot revolves around first two and eventually three families in London. The first two include a Bengali couple (Samad and Alsana) and their twin boys and a Jamaican wife (Clara) and sad-sack English husband (Archie) and their culturally conflicted daughter; when two of the three kids get into trouble at school, they’re shuffled off to tutoring at the house of a dementedly rationalist English family (the Chalfens) with an almost Stepfordish devotion to cheerful reason. The novel opens with Archie’s attempt at suicide, which fails (obviously) and leads to his introduction to Clara, and then careens from story to story, time period to time period, jumping ahead to show how first the parents and then the kids are dealing with the assimilation challenges of a multicultural society, all set against a backdrop of an unfeeling Western society that erodes cultural traditions.

When Smith gets rolling, her dialogue is outstanding and she displays a broad wit ranging from wordplay (the Chalfen family’s “Chalfenisms”) to clever turns of phrase (“Archie says Science the same way he says Modern, as if someone has lent him the words and made him swear not to break them”) to bathroom humor and even the occasional bit of slapstick. Her dialogue doesn’t cut out all of the mundane realities of actual dialogue, giving it a flavor of realism that so many postmodern novels lack, and she shows off a sense of economy when she uses the characters’ words to give the reader more insight into their characters – Archie’s regular use of the outdated phrase “I should cocoa!” being the most frequent example.

Her wizardry with words has its limits, however. The book is loaded with literary allusions which are nearly always identified for the reader, giving them a showy feel (“Look how well-read I am!”) and robbing them of some of their power, while the one time she does use an allusion and doesn’t spell it out – to a controversial novel published in the 1980s – the distraction is gone and the power of the conversation takes over. There’s also a bit of sloppiness throughout the book – such as the time she uses the name of one twin in a conversation about his brother – as well as one major plot element that is wildly unrealistic, when without his wife’s knowledge, Samad sends one of his preteen sons to Bangladesh to prevent him from becoming too Westernized. I’m sorry, I understand that this is a plot device, but when Alsana didn’t castrate her husband after finding out he had kidnapped one of her sons and sent him halfway around the world, it put a bit of a hole in the book’s credibility.

Where White Teeth really shines, however, is in its use of metaphor and symbolism, in a way rarely seen in postmodern literature, betraying (in a good way) that well-read background that Smith brings to the table. Teeth – real, missing, or fake, although surprisingly never gold – appear all over the book, with their presence or absence standing in for the connections between various characters and their pasts; several chapter titles refer to the “root canals” of characters. The battle over the genetic engineering of a mouse – a major plot element in the book’s last third that isn’t even introduced before the two-thirds mark – stands in for some of White Teeth‘s recurring themes, like tradition versus modernity, or racism and the post-racial society. The novel is bold and ambitious, so despite some structural flaws (like the massive changes in plot direction, almost as if Smith changed her mind partway through) and the above-mentioned sloppiness, it works both as a good read and a work of literature.

Jupiter/West Palm Beach eats.

So I was down in Jupiter for a high school showcase event – bit of a dud, really, but I had to go at least once to check it out – and hit a few new places while revisiting two spots I went to in the spring.

En route to West Palm Beach airport, I had a layover at Reagan Airport in DC, and noticed a Five Guys burger stand, which was named the best food outlet at that airport in a recent article. So I went. And I ate. For airport food, it’s off the charts, and I’d rate it above In-n-Out in the fast food burger category. The fries are the key – hand-cut, like In-n-Out’s, but thicker, and a regular order comes with more fries than I could eat in a sitting. The burgers are thicker than In-n-Out’s, of roughly equivalent quality, but because they only cook burgers well done, the patties start to dry out, which one can compensate for somewhat with extra ketchup, but it’s not the same thing. There is also a Five Guys in Palm Beach at the Legacy Mall, on PGA Blvd, which I hit on the way back to the airport to head home. (One side note: Five Guys was apparently named DC’s best burger by some publication that apparently doesn’t know its ass from its elbow. I can name two places within five miles of my house that serve better burgers – thicker, juicier, and cooked to order. There’s no way Washington doesn’t have some pub or diner that serves a quality half-pounder.)

Actually in Jupiter, then, I hit two new (to me) places in a strip mall right near the Cardinals’/Marlins’ complex, on the north side of Donald Ross Rd between Central Blvd and Military Trail. The better of the two was Pyros Grill, a funky, upscale fast-food place that serves “bowls” and wraps where you go down a checklist of ingredients, pick what you want, and it’s heated and served to you. The dishes are built around a “protein” – marinated steak, chicken, or black beans – and you can add various condiment-veggies (like scallions or cucumbers, but not more nutritious vegetables like broccoli) and choose a sauce. I went twice and ordered the same thing both times, the “Big Kahuna” bowl, which includes your choice of meats, scallions, cucumbers, onions, and a pineapple-teriyaki sauce. It was delicious, but a regular bowl wasn’t enough food for lunch, so I’d imagine most folks would want the large. I’d also like to see the food served a bit hotter; the meat is obviously cooked and chilled, then reheated before serving. Anyway, it was a boon to find a healthy option so close to the ballpark.

In the same strip mall is Thai Garden Palace (at least, I think that was the name, but Google Maps says it’s “Thai Grand Place”, so what the bleep do I know). I expected the place to be authentic, given the décor and the heavy accents of everyone working there, and maybe the food was authentic – but I’ve never had pad thai arrive as noodles sitting in a pool of sauce. The ingredients were fresh, and the chicken was cooked properly, but it was more like a noodle soup than a noodle stir-fry. The chicken-and-shrimp dumplings were large and full of both meats, but had very little flavor of their own and required both the “special” soy sauce that came with it (which tasted like every other soy sauce I’ve ever had) and a shot of the hot sauce on the table.

The revisits were a mixed bag. I went back to the Gelato Grotto in Palm Beach Gardens, and I was disappointed. I’m pretty sure the problem was that the freezer cases were too cold, so the gelato was hard and the flavors were dulled. I went with dark chocolate and toasted almond and just didn’t get a lot of taste. I also went to McCray’s II, the little barbecue stand on 45th Street in West Palm, at about 7 pm on a Thursday night, and they were out of pulled pork and BBQ beef, so I went with the ribs, which were very good – tender, could have come off the bone more easily, with a nice mild sauce with a hint of pepper to it. I’m still not sure why barbecue often comes with toasted white sandwich bread, though.

She’s not from Holland, mate.

Someone at the AP needs a spelling lesson, a geography lesson, or a slap upside the head:
Dutchess of York has advice for Heather.

All the King’s Men.

Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men took me a bit by surprise. It’s always pitched as a story based heavily on the life of Huey “Kingfish” Long, the popular and populist governor of Louisiana who was later assassinated by the son-in-law of a political rival. I expected a fictionalized biography, but in fact, the Long character, known as Willie Talos (also known as Willie Stark, but more on that in a moment), is a secondary figure in the book. Talos’ figure does loom large within the book, but his character isn’t as rounded as the Burden character is, and in fact none but Jack Burden and Anne Stanton are fully fleshed out. If you enter the book knowing that Burden himself is both narrator and subject, you’ll find the opening two chapters easier to understand.

All the King’s Men is the narrator’s story, not Talos’. The ominously-named Burden is a writer on the politics beat for a daily newspaper, and he ends up assigned to follow Talos on his first campaign for the gubernatorial seat, beginning a partnership that leads to a Chief of Staff-like role for Burden in Talos’ cabinet. Burden’s narrative moves back and forth through time, taking us at various points to his childhood friendship with the Stanton siblings, including a never-quite-finished romance with Anne Stanton; his first meeting with Willie Talos, and then later the epiphany that turns Talos from a pawn into a king in the state’s political arena; and a long and pivotal story from the distant past in Burden’s family, the story of Cass Mastern.

Mastern’s tale is critical to the book and also to understanding the two versions of the book that are in print today. Mastern was Jack’s father’s uncle, and while he was a university student prior to the Civil War, he had an affair with the wife of one of his closest friends, leading to the cuckolded man’s suicide. This sets off a chain of events that leaves Cass feeling the weight of a tremendous guilt for the various lives his selfishness has ruined and pushes him into a long search for redemption. It appears, at first blush, to have little to do with Jack Burden, but as the novel continues to unfold the events in its present time, Burden – who says at the time he tells Cass’ story that he can’t understand why Cass acted the way he did – faces a very similar chain of events, caused not by his own selfishness but by an act he believes to be compassionate, and then he feels he may have “come to understand” the actions of his great-uncle. It is complex storycraft, exploring deep and borderless themes of guilt, redemption, and the difference between how we feel when we undertake an action and how we feel when we see all of its consequences from a later vantage point.

Unfortunately, the editors at Harcourt Brace in the 1950s kept sharpened hatchets on their editing desks and did a number on Warren’s original manuscript. Two of their changes stand out for their awfulness. One was to split the Mastern story apart into its own chapter, obscuring the connection between that tale and the start of the parallel tale in Jack Burden’s life, all because they felt the combined chapter (100 pages in the 2001 hardcover edition) was too long. The other was to change the name of Willie Talos, which they felt was too ethnic, to Willie Stark, a name with a rather obvious connotation that doesn’t fit the character that well. Talos was a minor figure in Greek mythology charged with protecting the island of Crete, a big fish in a small pond much as Willie is in his own state. (If you want to read two professionals engage in a juvenile spat over the dueling versions, check out this back-and-forth between Noel Polk, the professor responsible for publishing the restored edition of Warren’s original manuscript, and Joyce Carol Oates, a novelist who wrote a piece arguing in favor of the bowdlerized version.)

I read the restored original edition, and found that Warren’s demarcation of chapters, his grammatical idiosyncrasies, and his nomenclature all worked well. It’s a story of limited redemption, a little like The Kite Runner without as much wrenching emotion, rather than the epic political drama that it’s reputed to be. (This may have something to do with the 1949 film version, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture.) Warren can be a bit verbose, but the resolution of the story’s spiderweb subplots is masterful, down to the disintegration of the artificial social structure Talos has built around him. The novel appears on the TIME All-TIME 100 Novels list, and on the Modern Library and Radcliffe lists of the 100 best novels of the 20th century. And with good reason.

(Amazon is selling the 2006 trade paperback version, using the 1951 edited text, for a discounted price of $4.99, but this may only be for a limited time.)

Lucky Jim.

Lucky Jim marks my first entry into the world of Kingsley Amis, courtesy of that TIME list of the All-TIME 100 Novels, and I’m hooked. Lucky Jim falls somewhere short of Waugh and Wodehouse on the humor continuum – Amis even includes a direct hat-tip to Waugh late in the book – but sits as a much more realistic novel than the best comic works of his English contemporaries.

The Jim of the book’s title is Jim Dixon, a sort of accidental lecturer at a minor “red brick” university in England, and he is the classic normal guy surrounded by wackos. His boss, Professor Welch, can’t remember Dixon’s name (calling him Faulkner, the name of his predecessor), can’t finish a thought, and can’t drive to save his own life. His sort-of girlfriend, Margaret, recently tried to kill herself and is engaged in a bizarre cling-and-push dynamic with Jim. (It’s funnier than it sounds.) One colleague, known just as Johns, lives in the same apartment building as Jim and seems to exist solely to report Jim’s foibles to Welch. And about a half-dozen other nuts populate Jim’s life, while Jim himself tends to exacerbate the situation by running to drink when the going gets tough and by coming up with some harebrained schemes to try to torment Johns and Bertrand, Professor Welch’s son and the boyfriend of Christine, with whom Dixon finds himself inadvertently falling in love.

Amis derives comedy both from the setup and from the action, a rare skill and one that separates funny writers from genuine comic novelists. Lucky Jim‘s story revolves around Dixon’s desperate attempt to keep his job by agreeing to come to a small arts festival at Professor Welch’s house and give a speech on Merrie England. Every time Dixon goes to the house, however, he ends up in trouble, usually of his own making, from falling asleep with a lit cigarette to the creation of the love triangle – rather, love pentagon involving himself, Bertrand, Christine, Margaret, and a married woman Bertrand may or may not be shagging on the side. It is occasionally riotous, always smirk-inducing, and surprisingly realistic, especially the dialogue between Jim and Christine, which borders on the mundane but imbues the book with a grounded feeling that, as much as I love the man’s works, Wodehouse books and stories don’t have.

While at Harvard, my favorite class was “Comedy and the Novel,” taught by Professor Donald Fanger (now retired); among the eight books was The Master and Margarita , still the best novel I’ve ever read, and If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller , an experimental novel by Calvino that’s among the funniest I’ve ever read. Lucky Jim would have fit into the syllabus without any shoehorning at all.

Back on the blog…

OK, I’m back after the week’s hiatus, and I’ve got a backlog of three books to review and some restaurants to write up. But in the meantime, just to remind you I’m here, check out this New York Times profile of the Trinity College sophomore who did the play-by-play on the fifteen-lateral touchdown play this past weekend. Why would I link to this article? Because the kid’s a William Faulkner fan, and this summer read my favorite Faulkner novel (and one of the greatest American novels ever written), Absalom, Absalom!, that’s why.

Back with more in a bit…