Friday, December 14, 2012

Pop pop fizz fizz

I drink lots of pop (I grew up in Ohio, okay?) for my Bold Italic story on The Fizzary, San Francisco's one-stop, soda pop shop. I'm not usually a soda drinker, but the obscure, micro-brewed, hand-crafted stuff they stock is delicious. So is the original grape Faygo.
 The Fizzary, on Mission and 26th, is adorably old-timey.
Can you spot the Ramune, the soda that you open by pushing down a marble? My mom introduced that to me when I was a kid. She drank it in Taiwan, and I drank it in Ohio.
The Fizzary's in-house chiller turns a warm, treacly soda into a crisp, cool one in four minutes flat.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Time to do something new in a faraway land

I wrote parts of Cooks, Clowns, and Cowboys, a new Lonely Planet coffee table book that's crammed with 101 fun, challenging, and enriching adventures to have around the world. Just picture yourself training camels in Egypt, painting silk in Nepal, building a hut in Senegal, banking curves on a roller derby track in California, or foraging for lunch in New York's Central Park. (Those last two are mine.) Yes, yes, yes! Too much fun. (Compare to reality: I am sitting on my couch watching plumbers fix the radiator.)

It's a travel book that's as much about exploring the world as it is about exploring your own potential. Also, there are lots pretty pictures to stare at and dream.

Friday, December 7, 2012

What I learned from Luke (yes, Skywalker)

I was sitting and pondering Star Wars (Episodes IV, V, and VI only) today, as all serious journalists often do, when I realized that contrary to popular belief, Luke Skywalker is not a total idiot.

If you think about it, our whiny hero does in fact succeed in saving the entire galaxy, despite all odds and a bad haircut, and I'd argue that it has everything to do with his approach to life that sets him up for success, and not just his gift with The Force, because as everyone knows, we all have a little bit of The Force in us. Most of us just don't know how to channel it.

1. Luke chooses a path that will get him somewhere.
At first when Obi-Wan tells Luke that he has to come with him on his mission to Alderaan and learn the ways of The Force, Luke understandably balks. There's the harvest, Alderaan is far away--whine, whine, deflect. He's making excuses, because the status quo always seems easier. But when he finds the only world he's ever known burnt to a crisp, he pulls himself together and guns his speeder straight to the first freighter off of Tatooine. "I want to come with you to Alderaan. There's nothing here for me now. I want to learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi like my father," Luke says. Definitive and declarative. He's not turning back. The first step in letting The Force flow through you is recognizing there's an opportunity. The second is committing to it.
 Luke isn't afraid to dream big.

2. Luke is willing to save a princess for free.
Take Han Solo, who you'll notice is smarter, hotter, and a better shot but doesn't actually achieve anything close to what Luke does. Solo's goals aren't even that out of reach. They are, in this order: (1) making enough money to pay off Jabba, and (2) getting with Leia. Solo succeeds with the second one but mostly by default. Luke on the other hand achieves transcendence, because he is willing to do difficult things regardless of immediate returns.

3. Luke frames big challenges in familiar terms.
When it's time to take down the small moon-sized battle station that is the Death Star, Luke just has to to maneuver his one-manned fighter along a trench while avoiding surface defenses and TIE fighters and shooting a few proton torpedoes into a hole that's two meters wide. Impossible, say the real pilots who know better. "It's not impossible. I used to bull's-eye womp rats in my T-16 back home. They're not much bigger than two meters," Luke says. Naive? Maybe. But at least he doesn't default to self-sabotage like that hotshot, know-it-all Wedge Antilles. (Okay, I'll cut Wedge a little slack, because he's only sixteen, but just think how far he could go if he dared to dream a little, no?)
Luke knows when to ignore the odds.

4. Luke's mentors are doing what he wants to do.
Luke may have chanced into meeting R2-D2, but R2 set him up with old Ben Kenobi, who then set him up with last and greatest, Master Yoda. Luke's not just hanging with other newbs (of course, that'd be impossible in Luke's case). And even when others are turned off by the packaging ("Where did you dig up that old fossil?"), Luke stays open-minded. (True, he's a speciest jerk when he meets Yoda, but at least he figures things out just in time to feel bad when Yoda dies.)

5. Luke's not afraid to make big mistakes.
You ever try pulling your X-Wing out of a swamp with just your mind? It's hard. Yoda offers some now famous advice: "Do or do not. There is no try." Wise words, wise words. But what does that really mean? Luke thinks he knows. He thinks it means flitting off to Bespin, doing nothing to help his friends, and getting his hand chopped off. He was wrong. But he learns from that. The next time he tries to save his friends, he makes plans and brings back-up.
Luke knows it's okay to make mistakes. And cry about them.
6. Luke comes prepared to succeed--when it really matters.
In the final showdown, Luke confronts his father and the Emperor. Does he make a big deal of it? No. He arrives to do the job, dressed in simple black pants and a Steve Jobs' turtleneck. His manner and his outfit say, he's not afraid to let his skills speak for themselves. When he starts to let his emotions get the best of him, he steps back, takes a few deep breaths, thinks about why he's there, and pulls himself together again. Then he ditches his light saber. You might think by doing this, he's saying, "I'm a religious zealot who believes The Force makes me invincible!" But maybe he's saying, "I'm so sure that I am pure and good and skilled, I don't even need to prove it to you to win." Try it sometime. Drop the pageantry (aka the bullshit). Prepare and show that you care. Close your laptop, look up from your phone, be present. That level of confidence and actual skill is enough to intimidate any rival, and it might even inspire one to take your side.
 Luke knows that things get out of hand sometimes. (Here he is about to realize that he does not want to kill his dad.)
7. Luke believes in something.
I used to think this was just missionary double-talk, but over the years, I've realized belief isn't about blind faith or religion but about having a cause. Each of us may die alone, but before that point, life is so much better having something (or someone) that is meaningful enough to inspire us to try every day. For Luke, at first the thing that gives him purpose is avenging his Uncle and Aunt's deaths, but while that anger lights a fire under his ass, it doesn't give him real strength. When he finds his purpose is to carry on The Force, everything falls into place. Maybe the thing you decide to believe in is a god or the goodness of your kids or the love of your spouse. Maybe it's the belief that society needs to clean up Washington or reduce consumption. Maybe it's that your dog is really just a hairy little baby or your macaroni diorama will bring peace to the world. Whatever it is, believing in something from which you can draw hope, that will inspire you when things are tough, help you to quiet your doubts, or at least balance out the disappointments--whatever that is is what will keep you going, looking forward to your next challenge, and a new dawn. knows that to succeed you have to be willing to jump--even if that means into an anus-shaped mouth.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

When just breathing isn't enough

Towards the end of the Shadow Yoga sequence I've been practicing, we do a deceptively simple inverted pose. It's a preparatory move for shoulder stand, which is something I had been doing for a long time, I thought, without any trouble.

I don't know the sanskrit for this mind-fuck of a pose, but it goes like this:
  1. Lie with your back flat on the ground, and then lift both legs straight up towards the ceiling with your feet flexed and hips still pressing into the ground. 
  2. Keep your knees straight and legs at a 90 degree angle, no more or less, to your torso and the floor. 
  3. Then without arching your back or lifting your hips, meet your palms in a prayer position straight over your chest and raise your arms towards the ceiling until your hands and arms are also perpendicular to the floor, while keeping your elbows straight and shoulders still pressing into the ground.
Got that? Okay, now stay there for another minute, breathing steadily. So far so good?
  1. Okay, now without changing the rest of your body's position, lift your head, neck, and upper shoulders off the floor and reach your arms past your legs. Are your legs still straight and perpendicular to the floor? Are your feet still flexed and your hips pressing into the ground? Is your stomach concave? Are your neck, shoulders, and eyeballs relaxed? Okay, now breathe (don't forget uddiyana banda, if you know it) for the next 30 or so seconds.
During my last class, I was trying to feel as natural and relaxed as possible while entirely holding my breath, when our teacher Scott Blossom walked by and said, "Like a potato chip."

Suddenly, instead of picturing my abdominal muscles straining to hold my two halves in proper position, locking myself in place by popping my neck muscles, and depriving myself of the thing I needed most, I pictured the golden curves of a sour cream and onion Pringles. It made me laugh and then suddenly my stomach almost magically seemed to pull in towards my spine and my upper half relaxed.

As your slacker best friend always says, it helps not to take every challenge in life so seriously. Sometimes it's good to distract yourself so that you can refocus without those unhelpful emotions, fear and anxiety. Also, even foods you would never eat except if you found a cache of them in an abandoned 7-11 in the waning years of the apocalypse, can still make for great analogies.

Sunday, November 4, 2012



Fred McFeely Rogers testifying before the Senate Subcommittee on Communications in 1969. With the proposed $20 million grant to the newly formed Corporation for Public Broadcasting, his program would have a budget of $6,000. "Six thousand dollars pays for less than two minutes of...animated, what I sometimes say, bombardment," he said. 

The argument that PBS funding matters or has ever mattered in the greater scheme of the federal budget is a straw man, a meaningless distraction from actual differences between how Republicans and Democrats spend money. Federal funding amounts to just 15% of PBS's total budget and just $450 million out of America's current trillion dollar deficit.

Regardless of who we choose on Tuesday, neither candidate's budget plan (assuming both are even feasible) will balance the budget for another eight to ten years, but Mr. Rogers' earnest message, devoid of politicking and cynicism, reminds us of what could really make things better for everyone today.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Works for the People

"I cut my's a sign of mourning. I'm mourning for my people because they are dying...we have no choice for our source of food, we have no control over our is held in trust by the Federal gets complicated, very complicated, colonialism does and genocide."
--Oyate Wacinyapi (Russell Means), Oglala Sioux activist (Nov. 10, 1939-Oct. 20, 2012)

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

It's hard to imagine things can change.

Redwood log train, c. 1900. Source: PHWood.
Bluefin tuna auctioned in Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market, January 2012. Source: Intl Bus Times.
Princess Yvonne and Prince Alexander of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn in Germany, 1955. Source: Collective History.

Thursday, October 11, 2012


Sometimes it seems like a tenet of democracy is that change only happens through very loud protest. The louder, the faster the change, the better. To insist on this approach, to abandon patience and dismiss culture and history, particularly what brought us here, is the mark of a spoiled child and a youthful nation. Patience for the tempo of true change allows a society to absorb not just what is fashionable but to actively choose the next step in the course of its evolving beliefs.

Or as today's Nobel Peace Prize in Literature winner has said: "A writer should express criticism and indignation at the dark side of society and the ugliness of human nature, but we should not use one uniform expression....Some may want to shout on the street, but we should tolerate those who hide in their rooms and use literature to voice their opinions.” -- Mo Yan

Thursday, October 4, 2012

When fashion meets literature.

This amazing catalog just arrived in the mail.

When I think cozy cardigans with grosgrain plackets, I think apocalypse. And roasting babies on spits.

Most journalists aren't scientists. So what?

In early September, the media jumped at a chance to grab page views by characterizing a Stanford Annals of Internal Medicine study as showing organic food offers no real health benefits over conventionally grown foods.

Their headlines ignored the subtleties. The New York Times wrote, "Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce." MSNBC said, "Organic food no more nutritious than non-organic, study finds." The New York Daily News asked and answered in one breath, "Save your cash? Organic food is not healthier." Almost every story latched on to one sentence in the study's conclusion: "The published literature [from which the study took its data] lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods."

The compelling headlines did their job, and the topic was the top trending story for days. But when the buzz died down, news outlets predictably changed tack. Now they criticized the study for the researchers' connection to big agriculture (Cargill gave $5 million in 2011 to the researchers' institute). Then a week later (probably once someone had actually read the original study), they pointed out its flawed methodology--the obvious problem being that the scientists narrowly defined "nutritious" as containing "more vitamins," and then equated "more vitamins" with "healthier," the sort of conflated hypothesis worthy of a sixth grade science project. Mark Bittman brings up some other problems on his blog.

But while the science is disturbingly problematic, the media coverage, regardless of any post facto critical analysis is at least equally so. How is it that nearly every major news story relegated to the end of the story (or worse, omitted entirely) the sentence immediately following the controversial not "more nutritious" statement? The study itself concludes, "[c]onsumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria," by an average of 30 and 33% in fact. This finding was better quantified and far more definitive than the vitamin angle, but perhaps because it didn't fly in the face of people's general understanding of organic foods, the press decided it wasn't news. The possibility that organic foods are less likely to expose consumers to chemicals that disrupt reproductive, neurological, and respiratory function or to super-bugs is to be expected. The fact that organic foods have no value is a major surprise!

Bad science does not make good news. If a study doesn't show anything, it's irresponsible to bend it into a national story. (Incidentally, the no increase in vitamins finding had already been published in at least one prior study way back in 2009 anyway. Also, a number of studies conveniently omitted by the Stanford research team came to precisely the opposite conclusion.) Scientists should care about this too. There are other roads to funding besides notoriety--including turning out meaningful research.

Reporters no longer seem to take responsibility for putting out shoddy stories, even though they lend legitimacy to even the dumbest ideas. Because of all this coverage, whether organic food is worth growing, buying, and consuming at all is now considered a legitimate question. The uncertainty will be offered as an excuse to avoid changing school lunch programs and waved around by anti-regulatory wonks who hate broccoli. It's another convenient lie woven into our subconscious.

Well, you might be thinking, I'm asking a lot here. Most journalists aren't scientists. Science is complicated. Well, so what? Science may have moved on from mapping the shape of the planet to modeling subatomic particles, but the scientific method has stayed the same. If a journalist doesn't understand the assumptions underlying scientific research and statistical significance, or how to explain either clearly and accurately, study up--even if this means reading more than the press release and extract.

What we need are more studies that look into whether the amount of pesticides and super-bugs in our food is safe--for consumers as well as the workers who grow it and the surrounding ecosystems. And we need stories about these studies that help readers interpret the results. Maybe these stories headlines could relate to the whole story, not just the most controversial soundbites. Really, what we need is real news.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Half past four

My cactus (Mammillaria tlalocii) blooms like clockwork.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The very tragical, very true history of American cuisine

The very multi-talented artist Jon Adams and I made a comic documenting some strange but very true events in the history of American food for McSweeney's. If you're lucky enough to have an iPhone, you can check it out with the super neat (and free) McSweeney's App. Here's a preview:

I couldn't fit everything that happened after that into the panels, but apparently, Bush Sr.'s press secretary came up with a story to smooth things over. "'Why don't you roll me under the table and I'll sleep it off while you finish the dinner,'" Bush reportedly quipped in the middle of the chaos. Oh really? I'm betting what he said came closer to, "Rrgh [wipes vomit off lips with sleeve]. Sorry. I am so...whuuuuuuruh [vomits again]." Either way, the evening was an embarrassingly apropos metaphor for the American economy.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

I'm on assignment in China

But you can keep up on my day-to-day at my Lonely Planet travel blog, Drink the Water.
A twenty-foot tall wen(文) guardian carrying a book (the ancient kind, made of bamboo) just outside Confucius's tomb, Qufu, Shandong, China. His partner, a wu(物)guardian stands across from him with a sword. In a battle of wits or brawn, they've got Confucius covered.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

When you're too much fire and not enough water (when you need to chill the f* out)

It might be time for an Ayurvedic cleanse. I learn how to chill out with the help of the ancient Indian medicine in my latest for the Bold Italic.

Since the story, I've made the dishes I picked up whenever I feel tired or generally disinterested in a heavy meal. I've stuck to my yoga. And I've turned away from my computer screen at least a couple hours before bedtime. I can't say I'm any closer to understanding the meaning of life, but at least, I'm well rested.

If a week of commitment is too much, you might at least want to try Dr. Blossom's delicious spiced greens recipe for dinner tonight.
Kale and collards sauteed in ghee with turmeric, coriander, and cumin. 
Works for everyone, whatever your dosha, but mainly, it's tasty.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Writing for children is just writing.

"Once a little boy sent me a charming card with a little drawing on it. I loved it. I answer all my children’s letters — sometimes very hastily — but this one I lingered over. I sent him a card and I drew a picture of a Wild Thing on it. I wrote, “Dear Jim: I loved your card.” Then I got a letter back from his mother and she said, “Jim loved your card so much he ate it.” That to me was one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received. He didn’t care that it was an original Maurice Sendak drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.”

— Maurice Sendak (1928-2012)

Monday, April 9, 2012

Golf anyone?
Hole 12, Fossil Trace Golf Course in Golden, Colorado, where late-Cretaceous fossils and historical mining equipment are as much of a draw as the perfectly groomed fairways. It's one of the golf getaways for non-golfers that I dug up for BBC Travel.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Never use a glass to scoop ice and other cooking secrets

I have been staging (apprenticing) at a restaurant and for that had to get a California Food Handler certification. I've taken my share of online training programs, from safe driver to sexual harassment to legal ethics, and all of them have been impossibly boring, but this one tops the list.

This one was narrated by a woman who apparently thought she was doing voice overs for a toddler TV show. She posed challenging riddles like whether you should ask the chef or manager when you don't know the answer to something. (The answer is yes.)

The highlight was the Dress the Employee exercise, which was meant to teach what to wear to work. I had to remove the set of false nails from the woman in this picture and put them on the table. Shudder.

 Never ever wear your falsies to cook.
Since the restaurant I've been working at makes every part of each dish, from garnish to main attraction, each day using entirely fresh (often foraged that morning) products, much of the info was irrelevant. I did, however, finally learn the secret to washing my hands: The first step is to wet them and the second step is apply soap. There's actually more to this, but I won't overwhelm you.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Just remember

“Doing more is not the answer to a better life.”

- Scott Blossom, Shadow Yoga teacher, among many other things.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Everlasting eggs

I look into the Chinese tradition of preserving eggs for the latest issue of Lucky Peach (available in major cities now, nationwide March 13). I've been into them since I discovered as a kid that they were much more flavorful and much less likely to make me gag than the typical mealy, factory-farmed, hard-boiled egg. But it was my dad's fascinating early experiences with them that pushed me to write this story.

Growing up in the era before refrigeration in Guangdong, a region of southern China prone to drought and famine, he learned the very old traditions of raising rice and ducks in synchronicity and combining the products of the harvest and egg-laying season to make foods to last many seasons. Years later, as a chemistry major at university in Taiwan, he met Professor Qin, a Guangxi native responsible for major advancements in three diverse fields. He taught my dad how to produce perfect pi dan (he came up with the idea to add liquified lead sulfide, an ingredient later replaced by magnesium and zinc alternatives); how to make pyrometric cones to calibrate super-high temperatures; and, perhaps most importantly, how to play a mean game of bridge.

For the story, I got to talk to some amazing chefs, among them Corey Lee of Benu in San Francisco, Dong Jinmu of Longjing Manor in Hangzhou, China, and Ronnie Ng of Koi Palace in Daly City. Each also had their own happy, early memories of eating preserved eggs.

For all of them, the memory of that first bite lingers vividly but is difficult to recapture in the kitchen. The flavors of these eggs are so tied to where they come from--from where the bird has foraged to where the curing ingredients are sourced. As Chef Ng put it, “If you don’t have the right soil, you don’t have an ingredient," which is why he has never bothered to preserve eggs here in the States. (Many preserved eggs are cured with a mud paste, so this is literally true.) His tastes were shaped in Hong Kong, where farmers raised ducks and cured eggs on the decks of their sampans floating in the harbor. “You can make pi dan, but you can never make PI DAN,” Ng said. 

Chef Corey Lee's exquisite housemade quail pi dan (in the West known as century eggs) make his hands look huge.
As time and space available for small batch production has disappeared, so too have the flavors from our childhoods. Eggs made the old way are even increasingly rare even in the smallest markets in China and southeast Asia. In Hong Kong, the Michelin-starred restaurant Yung Kee makes its own tangxin-style pi dan, “sugar-centered eggs,” with yolks that ooze like honey. The restaurant runs its own duck farm and uses what they told me is a "secret type of mud." Knowing what I know now about preserved eggs, I would bet they dug it up someplace near the chef's childhood home. 

Friday, February 17, 2012

It cuts like a knife

At least now it does.

I brought my abused array of knives to the lovely and hip Town Cutler, and they came back to me crazy sharp, full potential finally reached. I can slice again, rather than squish and tear.

Proprietor and cutler Galen Garretson sharpens your blades for $1.50 an inch (or slightly discounted for those in the industry), and he'll take time to chat about everything from the Rockwell scale (steel hardness) to restaurant life, which he knows much about having worked as a sous chef and on the line most recently at Quince, before opening up shop. He patiently reminded me to regularly hone this time, so that I better maintain their edges. I am sorry I was so lazy about this before, dear knives.

For more on the care and feeding of your knife, check out Sharpening Made Easy and Rouxbe's video tutorial, or sign up for one of Town Cutler's regular sharpening classes.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

All I want is lovin' you [sic] and music, music, music

So, I still don't have my own record player, or decent speakers, but I know all the places in San Francisco to get some. I tell you about the best ones in S.F. SoundMachine, my latest for the Bold Italic.

Zesta Audio's vacuum-tube amp was one of the many pretty things at Tone of Music that costs more than my rent.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Regarding those very expensive books about modern food

The editors of Modernist Cuisine spent a lot of time making pretty pictures. Here is the anatomy of a pot roast in a pot.

Thanks to the San Francisco Public Library, I've been reading Modernist Cuisine by Nathan Myhrvold et al., a six-volume tome dedicated to describing, picturing, and otherwise celebrating Western cuisine. The books are fun to flip through and full of interesting facts.

My favorite so far is the story of what happened to silphium, a fennel-like plant the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians once loved to eat. Everyone put so much of it into stocks and sauces that the plants disappeared right around the time Christ showed up. Modernist Cuisine doesn't offer much of an explanation, but I wonder whether the drive to extinction wasn't so much silphium's flavor but its side effects. When eaten in sufficient quantities, it was the morning-after pill in plant form.

One very big beef I have with the books is that despite their extravagant cover price (around $500), there apparently was no budget for copy editors. The books are seasoned generously with typos, and because of that lose some of their credibility. The worst recurring offense is the misuse of the word "stagier" instead of "stagiaire," when describing apprenticing in a restaurant kitchen. These are the sorts of errors common in the fast world of digital media, but why let this happen when you're going through all the trouble of printing a real live book that can only be fixed with a second edition?

Words are the meat of books. Pictures are the salt.