Stick to baseball, 3/5/16.

My one Insider piece this week covered the Ian Desmond deal with Texas. I also held my regular Klawchat.

I have two pieces up on Paste this week too: my review of the cool, quick-playing deckbuilder Xenon Profiteer, plus a recap of games I saw at Toyfair. The price has varied a bit, but Xenon Profiteer is $26.49 right now on amazon.

And now, the links…

Stick to baseball, 1/16/16.

I traveled to Puerto Rico this week to see the MLB draft showcase in Cayey, featuring likely top-5 pick Delvin Perez, so I haven’t written much anywhere, with just one Insider post, on the Wei-Yin Chen and Gerardo Parra signings. Klawchats will resume this upcoming week, and no, I haven’t seen this week’s episode of Top Chef yet. I did finish The Executioner’s Song on the flight home, and that has to be one of the most addictive books I’ve ever read.

And now, the links…

Saturday five, 5/16/15.

My Insider content this week includes my redraft of the 2005 class as well as a recap of the first round picks who didn’t pan out. I also held my weekly Klawchat on Wednesday. My first mock draft will go up on Tuesday.

And now, this week’s links…saturdayfive

Saturday five, 10/27/12.

I’ve been tied up this week working on the top 50 free agents ranking, and will probably be doing the same most of this upcoming week. I will be at Salt River Fields next Saturday for the Arizona Fall League’s Rising Stars Game, and hope to see some of you there.

* Adding to my link from two weeks ago about GM crops and California’s Prop 37, check out this French study that claims that rats fed Monsanto-modified corn developed tumors and died earlier than other rats. They found similar results with rats fed amounts of the herbicide Roundup that are permissible under U.S. law. (EDIT: Reader Dennis points out why this study might be a load of crap. And here’s a somewhat balanced look at the problems with the study and the need for follow-up.)

* Don’t buy or eat shrimp from Vietnam. Or any seafood from there, really. Or from China. Maybe this is why Bruce and his fellow sharks say fish are friends, not food.

* Former minor league pitcher John Dillinger comes out of the closet. I remember his name well, for obvious reasons, but never saw him pitch. This is a great read, especially his belief that an active player who chose to come out would meet with a friendly or at least non-hostile reception.

* Not that I want to be kind or gentle to the troll by giving her attention, but I thought this response from a man with Down Syndrome was spectacular.

* “The Island Where People Forget to Die” tells of the remarkable longevity of residents of Ikaria. One of their secrets is a heavily plant-based diet with virtually no processed foods, heavy on olive oil, legumes, and wine.

Folks, This Ain’t Normal.

I’m not a big fan of polemics in general, since, regardless of subject matter, they all tend to share two traits: They are poorly written and lightly evidenced. Joel Salatin’s Folks, This Ain’t Normal: A Farmer’s Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World fits that description perfectly, with a complete lack of footnotes and scant detail even in anecdotes that should, in theory, help prove his points, and while Salatin is clearly a bright guy, he’s no writer, and whoever edited his book didn’t do him many favors. Yet despite those glaring flaws, and the clear bias with which he writes (one to which I’m sympathetic), there’s still a fair amount of value to be had from reading Folks… because of the questions his arguments on agriculture and our modern, unsustainable food supply will raise in your mind.

Joel Salatin is a self-described “environmentalist capitalist lunatic farmer,” as well as a libertarian, a Christian, and to some degree a bit of a chauvinist, so 350 pages of his thoughts will inevitably contain something to aggravate any reader – a tactic, however, that can have the positive effect of causing readers to investigate Salatin’s claims further to try to debunk them. He runs an extensive, traditional farm in rural Virginia called Polyface, pasture-raising livestock; eschewing the use of pesticides, antibiotics, and genetically modified crops; and employing a holistic approach to land management that relies on natural processes and diets to maintain soil quality, limit water usage, and minimize his carbon footprint.

Salatin follows three main tracks, ignoring some of the extraneous rants in the book such as his thoughts on child-rearing, that are relevant to the consumer:

  1. He explains why industrially-produced food is inferior in quality, safety, and environmental impact to food from individual farmers practicing his style of agriculture.
  2. He blames government regulators, generally in cahoots with large-scale industrial food producers, for masking the true costs of industrially-produced food, making it less cost-effective for small-scale farmers to start and grow their businesses, and limiting those local farmers’ access to markets through suffocating regulations. He even saves some ire for the government’s relationship with Big Oil, since cheap fuel distorts the market for local food, to say nothing of cheap fertilizers.
  3. And he ends every chapter with advice to the consumer on how to improve his/her impact on the food supply, including many admonitions to grow as much of your own produce as you can, as well as to raise chickens in your backyard for their eggs*, feeding them kitchen scraps and using their manure for compost.

* One of our daughter’s best friends in kindergarten has chickens in her backyard, and her mom gave us a half-dozen of the eggs last week. I have never come across any egg with shells that strong, and it was the first time I’d ever seen a greenish egg, which apparently means the hen was an Araucana. The yolks were also very well-defined. If my daughter and I weren’t both so allergic to feathers, I’d set up a coop right away.

As I mentioned earlier, however, Folks, This Ain’t Normal ain’t a great read. He backs up virtually none of what he says unless he can discuss a specific experience at Polyface; at one point, he mentions a centrally-planned city in China that grew up practically overnight, with 250,000 people and gardens on nearly every rooftop, but never mentions one minor detail – the city’s name – without which the story is much tougher to verify. You may nod your head at first to his arguments about corrupt regulators, market externalities, nanny-state policies, or the hijacking of the term “organic,” but his arguments consistently lack evidence. I think most of what he says is right – our government is way too involved in the food supply, and our policies on food and oil have led to poor land usage, soil mismanagement, the inevitability of water crises, and substandard products at the grocery store* – but it would be tough for me to carry out any of these arguments myself based solely on his book.

*Another rant: Have you ever had a truly pasture-raised chicken? The chicken breasts are small, while the legs are larger, because the chickens are more active, building muscle in the thighs and drumsticks (well, what eventually become the drumsticks), while burning off the calories that, in a caged bird, would otherwise lead to larger breasts. (Stop snickering.) I happen to prefer dark poultry meat anyway, since it has more fat, leading to better texture and less dryness, but it’s also a lot more natural; industrally-raised birds’ organs can’t keep up with the muscle growth in the breasts, so they must be slaughtered earlier so they don’t die of organ failure. And, as it turns out, pasture-raised cows and chickens produce more healthful milk and eggs than feedlot or caged livestock does, just as compost-raised produce contains more nutrients than fertilizer-raised produce.

Folks, This Ain’t Normal at least encouraged me to continue what I’ve started in our yard, composting and growing regionally and seasonally appropriate crops, and to be smarter about what I buy and where I buy it. Salatin mentioned The Cornucopia Institute, which ranks organic dairies and organic egg producers on how true their claims of organic practices are. (In Arizona, the executive summary is: Organic Valley and Clover = good, Horizon and Shamrock = bad.) They’ve also led the fight on behalf of almond farmers who want to sell raw almonds to the public, winning a lawsuit allowing California almond farmers to challenge a USDA regulation that forbids the sale of almonds that haven’t been treated with a toxic fumigant or at very high heat, a regulation in response to a salmonella outbreak at one of the nation’s largest industrial nut producers. This kind of policy – where the sins of a large corporation lead to regulations with fixed costs that crush smaller producers – is exactly what Salatin targets when he rants about intrusive, anti-farmer regulations. I had never heard of the Cornucopia Institute before picking up his book, or many of the other books he mentions (such as Gene Logsdon’s memorably titled Holy Shit: Managing Manure To Save Mankind), so Salatin’s book did at least achieve one goal – forcing me to reexamine the food my family eats, from how it’s grown to where we get it. But had he researched and supported his book with more hard data or secondary sources, Folks, This Ain’t Normal might have become a classic in its narrow field.

Next up: As I mentioned on Twitter, I’m working my way through Raymond Carver’s short story collection Where I’m Calling From – and yes, I’m aware of the controversy over his editor’s role in changing some of the text.

The Story of Sushi.

My most recent piece on went up yesterday – a preview of the major amateur free agents available in Latin America this summer.

I recommend a lot of books around here, but I’m not sure the last time I said that any you must read a particular book. If you like sushi, or just seafood in general, however, you need to get yourself a copy of Trevor Corson’s The Story of Sushi: An Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice (published in hardcover as The Zen of Fish), a tremendous read that blends the history of what we now refer to as sushi in the U.S. with a surprisingly interesting subplot around a class going through a sushi-chef academy near Los Angeles. Corson’s integration of the two threads is remarkable, but for me, the value was in hearing him subtly say to American diners: “SUSHI: UR DOIN IT WRONG.”

Corson boils sushi down to its core components – the rice, the vinegar in the rice, the seaweed – and even dabbles in some food chemistry by explaining why we particularly like those ingredients as well as raw fish, discussing umami and the chemicals that deliver it (glutamic acid and inosine monophosphate in particular) and why we like the flesh of sea creatures raw but generally don’t like uncooked meat from land creatures. He discusses why certain types of fish make better or worse sushi, and of course discusses wild fish versus farm-raised (wild is better, but farm-raised does have some advantages) as well as the dangers overfishing present to natural fish populations. There’s even a chapter on uni, a paste comprising the gonads of sea urchins, which I recently learned is also consumed raw in various Caribbean cuisines as well.

Those sections were interesting, but didn’t do too much to change the way I thought about sushi, since I already knew I liked the stuff. Corson also discusses the various traditions around sushi and the etiquette of eating it (use your fingers for nigiri; never rub your wooden chopsticks together; miso soup should be eaten after the meal), as well as the logic for eating certain pieces in certain ways. A good sushi chef will, if you allow him, consider the order in which you’re eating your fish, moving across a continuum from milder flavors to stronger ones, or from softer textures to firm ones. Stirring wasabi (which, you probably know, isn’t actually wasabi at most U.S. restaurants but American horseradish dyed green) into soy sauce reduces the flavor of the wasabi, because the heat is partly deactivated in liquid. The fish used in spicy tuna rolls – a thoroughly American creation – is generally refuse, scraped off the skin of the tuna after the best pieces have been removed and used for nigiri or other dishes that require better flavor and texture. In fact, most rolls are inauthentic and used to hide inferior-quality fish under ingredients that are strongly flavored, like chili oil, or that coat the tongue with fat, like mayonnaise or avocado.

I’ve never been a huge fan of complicated rolls, since they tend to layer lots of ingredients together and come with sticky-sweet sauces, and I’m not a fan of mayonnaise so I generally avoid spicy tuna anyway. Having a rich, fatty, sweet roll can burn your palate for the delicate flavors of the fish-and-rice nigiri. But Corson’s book, without ever explicitly saying, “don’t eat the fancy rolls,” presents three arguments – one based on authenticity, one on the quality of the ingredients, and the fact that sushi becomes rather unhealthy when you load it up with fats and sugars – for at least limiting your consumption of those rolls, if not eliminating them altogether. And the teachers and sushi chefs who appear in the book all share his disdain for the fancier rolls, even while they teach them at the academy because customers want them – and they’re very profitable. (Another good reason not to order them, actually – you usually get more bang for your buck with nigiri.)

A book that just discussed sushi’s history, traditions, and science would have been worth reading without an actual plot to carry it along, but Corson built his book around the story of a class at The California Sushi Academy, a school run by a longtime sushi chef named Toshi whose restaurant (adjacent to the school) is struggling and who is himself recovering from a fairly recent stroke that has sapped his energy. Corson focuses on a few specific students in the class, including Kate, the nominal star of the book, a young woman struggling to find a career while fighting depression who nearly quits the school a half-dozen times; Fie, the Danish model/actress who decided she’d rather be the bombshell behind the sushi bar; and Takumi Nishio, the former Japanese boy-band star who quit the music business to study first Italian cuisine and now authentic sushi; while also devoting some time to Zoran, the Yugoslavia-born/Australian-raised head instructor who is a True Believer in traditional sushi even as he teaches the students American-style rolls. Their stories are interesting, as are their struggles – except for Takumi, who, in the book at least, seems to be a complete natural at whatever cuisine he tries, so he’s fascinating but without much drama. Corson follows them on assignments outside the classroom, like feeding the cast and crew on a movie lot, or watches them work a shift in the back room of the restaurant, using each episode as a segue into some note on the history or components of sushi.

If you like sushi, The Story of Sushi is $10 well spent. You can simultaneously learn the history of the California roll – its inventor is actually known, and there’s a good reason why there’s an avocado in it – and why you shouldn’t really bother with it when you’re in a quality Japanese restaurant.

For more from Corson, check out his official site, which includes some notes on the people in The Story of Sushi and other links and articles about seafood.

Next review: Richard Russo’s The Whore’s Child and Other Stories.

Why I cook.

Returning to the subject of Michael Ruhlman, the passionate and blunt food writer behind Ratio, he posted a mini-essay on his blog last week titled “Why I Cook,” giving his reasons and urging his readers to do the same. (This comment from one of his readers is alone worth the click, although it’s quite sad.) Here, therefore, is my answer to the question of why I cook.

I cook, first and foremost, to eat. When I was in graduate school, my wife was working 40 hours a week as a preschool teacher, which, some of you probably know, is exhausting work. I, meanwhile, was done every day by 3 pm, sometimes sooner, and generally didn’t have much homework to do, so I thought it was the least I could do to take over the cooking duties. And, in hindsight, I was pretty bad at it. But we ate, and we ate cheaply. That still holds today, even though I can splurge on more expensive ingredients – although I now understand the value of those ingredients, and when and where it’s worth the splurge and which corners one can safely cut for home cooking.

My life has changed dramatically in the eleven years since I’ve graduated, as I now have a demanding job but a commensurate income and at least have the excuse to slack on cooking. I continue to do so because…

* I want the control over what goes into our bodies, especially since the first-person plural now includes my three-year-old daughter. I know what we’re eating, and I know that we’re limiting her intake of pesticides, high fructose corn syrup, preservatives, or needless quantities of salt. I know the bread we eat is 100% whole wheat, because I made it. I know the beef we eat was grass- or grain-fed, and that the sea bass I purchase (rarely) came from a sustainable fishery, because I bought it and cooked it myself.

* All three of us have to monitor our diets to limit our intake of one or more ingredients or nutrients. For me, it’s lactose, and a handful of other foods that my stomach doesn’t like. For my wife, it’s sugar and a few minor food allergies. For my daughter, it’s protein, so we’re raising her as a vegetarian, and are glad that she hasn’t quite made the bacon/pig connection yet. (I did suggest we name the stuffed-animal pig we bought her “Smokey,” but my wife called that “twisted.”)

* It lets me spend my calories where I want to. I’m not on a diet, nor am I a rabid calorie-counter, but I will put on weight if I completely ignore what I’m eating, something that happens to many people in my line of work because we’re on the road so much. When I cook, I can stick with lean meals and use those extra calories on dessert, or on a big mess of waffles and sausage on a Sunday morning.

* I can vote with my mouth. Organic food isn’t for everyone because it’s expensive, and while I wish organic farms could feed everyone today, we’re not there yet. I also know that the more that people like me who are not rabid environmentalists but care enough about food safety, the environment, and the rights of farmers and laborers in the food supply chain choose to buy organic or sustainable or fair-trade products, the more that that section of the industry can grow.

* You can’t beat the flavors of fresh food. I can buy and cook the same day, and if I time it right, I might get a locally-grown vegetable or fruit from ground to table in a day or two. We pick strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries every summer and I put them up in jams so that I can still get that unbeatable taste of summer in the middle of January. I grow herbs in my backyard because pesto Genovese is sweeter and more potent when you picked the basil 20 minutes before putting it in the food processor.

* And, most of all, I cook because I love it. There is something magical about taking ingredients, applying heat and a little know-how, and producing a dinner to feed your family. There’s a tremendous reward in bringing a dessert or a basket of bread to a party and seeing people enjoy the food you crafted with your hands – regardless of whether you ever receive a “thanks” or a “wow.” And, to me, food just tastes better when I earned it in the kitchen.

Any one or two of these reasons would be sufficient for me to continue cooking, but all of them together have made it a part of my routine that borders on obsession, to the point where I miss it after too many days on the road – the sight of bright-green basil or deep red roasted peppers, smell of onions caramelizing in the pan, the feel of bread dough that just needs a few seconds of kneading, the sound of meat hitting the surface of a hot pan, and the taste of all of the above.

March Maidens.

I don’t follow college basketball at all, and even March Madness holds only a faint interest for me, since I’m usually wrapped up in spring training at that point. I do pay attention to one aspect of the tournament though: I pull for the maidens – that is, the teams that have never won the championship before. (In horse racing, a maiden is a horse that has never won a race.) We came close to having a maiden team win last year with Memphis, but they let me down.

Unfortunately, this is looking like a really lousy year for maidens. Memphis has just been knocked off by Missouri, and while Missouri is an even bigger maiden than Memphis (the Mizzou Tigers have never reached the Final Four, and this is just their third Elite Eight appearance), Memphis was Ken Pomeroy’s top-ranked team, so in theory, they had a better shot to topple one or more #1 seeds.

Pitt is the only maiden among the #1 seeds, but of course, they barely got by Xavier, which doesn’t inspire any confidence in me that they’re going to beat this relentless ‘Nova team.

Today was actually the better day of the two Sweet 16 days for maiden teams, as Friday’s four games feature just two maidens: Oklahoma (two title game appearances: a 1988 loss to Kansas and a 1947 loss to WHO THE HELL LOSES TO HOLY CROSS IN ANYTHING? back when the court was 12 feet long and they used peach baskets instead of nets) and Gonzaga (never reached the Final Four). Gonzaga faces UNC, who seem to be the consensus “expert” pick to win the whole shebang.

College basketball might be the most likely endeavor among major team sports where you could very easily see a maiden winner every two or three years. In MLB, we get long droughts, but there are only eight franchises that have never won, two of which are less than twenty years old. (It’s nine if you don’t count the New York Giants’ titles for San Francisco). The NFL and NBA have more maidens, but more than half the franchises in each league have won, and it’s hard to get all worked up about Oklahoma City’s title drought of one year even if we don’t give them Seattle’s win in 1978-79. In college basketball, not only do we have a huge number of schools that have never won – only 34 of 347 schools who play D1 basketball have won it – but it takes neither a long time nor a large number of great players to make a team competitive. Unfortunately, we’re on track for our third straight year without a maiden winner after a great run of five in ten years (Arizona, Connecticut, Maryland, Syracuse, and Florida).

* Speaking of the NCAA, Dayn Perry has a great post on Spolitical about the exploitation of college athletes, specifically those in “revenue sports,” which for most schools means football and basketball. That said, issues like revocable scholarships crop up in baseball as well. You’re a freshman pitcher. Coach works you so hard that by year-end you can’t comb your hair and have to visit Dr. Andrews. You’re out for a year or more and odds are your velocity isn’t coming back. You lose your scholarship. Coach loses … nothing. Yeah, that seems fair. If scholarships were guaranteed for three years, wouldn’t coaches have an incentive to handle players (particularly pitchers) better in at least their first two years at the school?

* So my alma mater has a couple of researchers trotting out the new vegetarian mantra that eating beef boosts global warming. Here’s the part that confuses me: If raising cows means more greenhouse gas emissions, can’t we slow global warming by killing all cows? That seems to be the obvious conclusion here.

* Handshake deals are illegal under MLB rules, folks. The Nats should tell Young’s agent to shove it. An oral agreement is only worth as much as the paper it’s written on.

Bluefin tuna.

I’m never sure how seriously to take enviro-scare articles in the mainstream media, although this bit on the threat to bluefin tuna populations seemed somewhat well-researched, keeping the hysteria to quotes from researchers. The article refers to the northern bluefin tuna simply as the bluefin tuna and notes that it has nearly been fished out of existence, with the global population dropping by an estimated 90% in the last thirty years.

Bluefin toro, when it’s fresh, is among the best kinds of sushi you’ll ever have, up there with yellowtail belly and Pacific salmon in my book. Bluefin toro, a fatty cut from the tuna’s belly, falls apart in your mouth, like a very high-quality steak cooked rare, but without the slightly grassy flavor. It is, however, quite expensive – I’ve paid $10 a piece for it before and I’ve seen it cost more than that. I rarely have it, and if living without it for a few years will help restock the oceans, I’m fine with that.

Here’s what I’m not fine with:

Several smaller ICCAT members such as Guatemala and Panama had initially backed a proposal supported by the U.S. and environmental groups to halt all bluefin fishing for nine months of the year, and to crack down hard on violators. But European officials persuaded them to instead adopt a reduced quota of 22,000 tons in 2009, and 19,950 tons in 2011. That certainly represents a sharp drop from last year’s estimated global sales of 61,000 tons of bluefin tuna — and even from this year’s official quota of about 29,000 tons — but it’s still far above the 15,000 tons that marine scientists advise is the limit that can be fished without without the species becoming extinct.

You know, the Europeans do like to lecture us on environmental issues (Kyoto comes to mind), but damn if they don’t change their tune when their own self-interest is at stake. I often say, half-jokingly, that I’ll turn down my thermostat and buy a car with better gas mileage when Russia, Brazil, and Nigeria stop cutting down all of their trees. (Nigeria has already wiped out over 90% of its original forest stock. Good work.) Maybe I should add to that quip one about only giving up eating bluefin toro when the Europeans agree to stop overfishing it.

Reusable bags.

I’m in Milwaukee, eating and writing up a storm. To tide you over, here’s a great WSJ article on the rise of the reusable bag, replacing the so-called “T-shirt” disposable plastic bags that have become the environmentalist’s new bête noire. It’s a well-written, balanced piece and brought a few things to light for me (like how the “I used to be a plastic bag” slogan has two interpretations).

Chez Law, we have more of those reusable bags than we really need, but many are the products of trips to the store without our bags and our subsequent refusals to take disposable ones. I think we have five from Whole Foods and at least four from Trader Joes, although I will take any bag to any store. I always tell myself I’m going to leave one in my car, and sometimes I do, except that then I take it into the store, fill it, bring it inside to empty it, and never restore it to the back seat.