Sunday, March 31, 2013

Ripped Off

“I’m gonna pop some tags / Only got twenty dollars in my pocket”

If these lines sound familiar to you because they’ve been beaten into your head in the last few months, then you know they’re from the song “Thrift Shop” by Macklemore. Ben Haggerty (Macklemore) does the rapping; a 51 year-old guy named Wanz does the catchy chorus that made the song a big hit.

Ever since I first heard high school girls singing that chorus relentlessly, I was reminded of something else — something much older from the London of my youth.

Today, I finally figured it out. The riff is from a song called “Uptown Top Ranking” by a duo, Althea and Donna, which was their only hit, reaching number one on the British singles chart in 1978. They were only 17 and 18 years old at the time.

Both songs are about dressing up in style and hitting the streets.

Haggerty probably never heard that (he was born six years after it came out), but Wanz probably did. Someone needs to collect some monies, don’t ya think?

Here’s Macklemore.

And here’s Althea and Donna.

Case closed.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Shaking Salt: Salted by Mark Bitterman

Michael Ruhlman reports, in his essential book, The Elements of Cooking, that Thomas Keller believes that knowing how to salt food is “the most important thing for a cook to know.” Mark Kurlansky wrote an entire book on the world history of salt. Yet for most people, salt is simply a bit of table dressing; one half of the obligatory cruet set. If it’s thought about or used at all, it’s reflexively sprinkled on any savory dish, as if a decoration, an imperative of some kind which has become a habit divorced from meaning: does the dish really need salting? And what stuff, exactly, is this salt you’re putting on it?

Chances are it’s generic, industrially produced table salt — Mortons, in all likelihood — whose claim to fame is that its umbrella girl logo illustrates its motto: “When It Rains It Pours®.” (Yes, the registered trademark needs to be there.) What this has done is convince many generations of Americans that salt’s primary virtue is its pourability in any humidity level. Whoopee. As for flavor, texture, color — well, if it was anything but pourable and white, it wouldn’t work in the salt shaker, would it?

Mark Bitterman doesn’t want any truck with that. He’s a self-proclaimed “selmelier,” a connoisseur of salt, and boy, does he know his stuff. His book Salted serves as an encyclopedia of salt that’s not only aesthetically beautiful as a book, but is written with as much verve and color as the salts he lovingly details. In fact, he calls the book a “manifesto on the world’s most essential mineral,” which rightfully suggests that his approach is more mission than memo.

If a sommelier is someone whose judgment you trust about wine; someone, perhaps, who can allow you to see that wine can be an utterly different substance than that grog you’ve always been served in a plastic cup at parties, then a selmelier is someone who can do exactly that for your ignorance about salt. The tools he uses in place of the ability to have us actually taste salts are his words.

For example: there’s an entire section in this book about “the poetry of describing salt.” This is what he says of Halen Môn, a Welsh salt of which I am particularly fond: “Halen Môn offers a textural dimension beyond that of most other flake salts, its crunch-upon-crunch layers vanishing before calling undue attention to themselves, leaving behind a clearly defined structure and pleasant minerality, ponderings for the mouth that are as ungraspable as string theory.” I use a smoked Halen Môn crumbled into the soft tops of chocolate chip cookies before baking. If you’ve never had chocolate chip cookies accented with the right salt, you haven’t lived. Bitterman suggests pairing it with “butternut squash coup; grilled fish; [or a] garden vegetable sandwich,” and the smoked variety with “vanilla bean ice cream.”

I suspect I have let the cat out of the bag somewhat in terms of my investment in this topic by confessing to not only knowing about this artisanal salt, let alone having my own supply of it to use with cookies. I keep the salts I use regularly in tiny pinch-pots within easy reach, and re-fill them regularly. I am someone who relies on a salt-water gargle to stave off any cold and soak any wound (and it works!).

One of those has always been Maldon sea salt from the Essex coast. I thought it was just my humble opinion that nothing else could be as perfect for enlivening a 7-minute boiled farm egg, but it appears Bitterman agrees. His paean to this salt begins with a reverie about life’s good days and bad days before claiming assertively that “Maldon doesn’t have off days.” In describing its flavor, he writes “sea breeze with glitter in it.” But the note that slays me is this observation: “Crushing Maldon between the finger and thumb, and letting the flakes fall to the surface of your favorite food is almost as satiating as eating it.” Amen, brother. I have been known, in private moments standing in my kitchen, to grizzle a bit of Maldon between my fingers just for the pleasure of it.

If the tongue is an important tool in appreciating and balancing salt, then the fingers are too. Feeling the quality and texture of the grain, and determining its occasionally odd greasiness (despite not actually being greasy) is essential. It is here that one appreciates most fully that a life spent only experiencing pourable salt is a tragedy.

If you eat — if you cook — then continuing to do so without reading this book and/or ditching the table salt for something — anything — else. Bitterman’s information panel for it reads thusly: "Type: industrial; Crystal: homogeneous cubes; Color: abandoned factory windowpane; Flavor: phenolitic paint followed by rusted barbed wire; Moisture: none; Origin: various; Substitute(s): anything; Best With: shuffleboard lubricant.”

Try touching a bit to your tongue. Tell me he isn’t exactly, excruciatingly right. 

Bitterman and his wife Jennifer are the proprietors of The Meadow

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

On the Origin of Kitchenware

Falcon Enamelware

Pie dish with perfect spoon. 

In 1859, a chap named Charles Robert Darwin published a book called On the Origin of Species. In it, he theorized that nature favored designs which promoted the success of any given species, and that adaptation — the development of traits which helped the species survive — was what got us all to the point where Homo sapiens could write books.

Natural selection is beautiful because it pertains not only to eons of mammal development, but to the art and science of kitchen equipment. Once upon a time, Mrs. Homo sapien used a series of rocks and sticks with which to prepare her family’s dinner. More recently, people of my grandmother’s generation used white enamelware with a blue rim for pretty much everything.

This is where Darwin’s beautiful theory comes to a grinding halt. Why? Because there was nowhere for kitchen containers to go: perfection had been achieved, and no competitors were left to nip at its heels. There was no longer an incentive for adaptation.

This is not to say that Homo sapiens have not tried. The results have been, on occasion, acceptable — but not exquisite. Not peerless. Not beautiful.

If you are a discerning member of the Homo sapien tribe, you may be interested in acquiring a bit of perfection for your own kitchen. Happily, you can buy it for a very reasonable amount of money form Falcon Enamelware, whose excellent packaging tells me have been in the business of creating kitchenware masterpieces since 1920.

Natural selection has produced some truly bizarre and lovely creatures. Fabulous plumage and camouflage, for example. Like nature, one of the things that Falcon have gotten right is in the design of their packaging. Superior brains selected MorseStudio to design their brand, and an even more superior brain decided to share a picture from this collection on Pinterest.

If you are a Homo sapien who does not think that Pinterest is an important tool of natural selection needs to catch up.

Here is their campaign.

I have been using exactly this kind of white and blue-rimmed enamelware since forever, and it has never let me down. I use it literally every day, for every conceivable task.

Anthropologie sells the Bakeware set online, but it’s cheaper for Americans to purchase it direct from Falcon. British Homo Sapiens can usually find it, as I did many years ago, at their local high street ironmongers.

Wait a minute.


Sunday, March 24, 2013


Since when was “so” a catch-all word with which to end sentences?

Unless you’re John Luc Picard issuing orders from the USS Enterprise (“Make it so”) or demonstrating a particularly tricky maneuver (“like so”), it’s a word that ought not to be used as a syntax terminus.

In the above examples, the word “so” means for “thus.” When people generally use so in everyday speech, it trails off, as if the “o” were merely the first dot in an ellipses. The accompanying inflection tends to be questioning (so…?), leaving the sentence open-ended, and thereby demanding a response, or a verbal shrug, welcoming a rejoinder but not exactly asking for one. It sounds like they are desperate to have someone else finish their thought — in a more succinct way
than they themselves can articulate.

The problem is that the people who have hijacked the word “so” as a period have lost the ability to form a complete sentence when they speak. They cannot or will not stop; every utterance needs to be a conversation rather than a statement.

This verbal sloppiness has arisen alongside the increased communication via text-speak, which has become the preferred mode of communication over vocal speech. It used to be that speaking to someone face-to-face or even over the phone meant that cluing your interlocutor in as to when you had finished an utterance was a necessary element in any oration. But texting has made such subtleties of grammar obsolete. No-one uses punctuation when texting – the traditional glyphs have become emoticons, clumsy stand-ins for the non-verbal signs people used to be able to enrich their speech with in order to indicate tone. A smiley face is a friendly elbow jab, rather than a way to say you’re happy. We use acronyms to express strong emotion now, because the phrases they represent have become standard (WTF!).

All this has inevitably left its mark on the average person’s vocabulary and grammar — the bricks and mortar of which communication is built. Ending a sentence that ought to be a statement expressed with confidence that now relies on “so…” suggests uneasiness, equivocation.

Curiously, the word “thus” is also used to sandwich together actions and consequences, like its predecessor, “ergo.” The observant listener will expect something on the other side of it or remain at a loss. Parents are often guilty of commandeering the word “because” as a definitive “no” at times when a simple “no” surpasses a child’s demands. It means “because I said so,” which makes the parent God, the ultimate author of the child’s world. The very fact that the word “because” alone cannot be a sentence signals it out for special attention; it relies on the child to understand the unspoken part (about being the ultimate authority), and therefore to accept it.

Of course, parents can attest to the fact that the useful life of such a tactic is pretty short. The child will continue to challenge the Word, and so they should, for how else will they learn? They figure out far too soon that parents, who are, after all, mere mortals, cannot simply will a thing into being with the result that “it was so.”

We are more than our thoughts. If they were all we had, we would not have gotten very far. Thoughts need a voice, and that voice needs to be clear — not so-so. Like so. 

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Sign of the Times

What's Your Sign?

Once upon a time, a long time ago, back before personal computers, the internet, and cheap vinyl banners, I painted signs. It's exactly as hard as it looks, and that's before you consider that it all has to be performed while clinging to a ladder in the rain.

I was recently given the extraordinary opportunity to have a hand in designing the type for my book, something authors aren't usually involved in. Some people don't think type matters; that as long as you can read a word, it's done its job. What these people don't realize is that in order to have the luxury of this opinion, they have been exposed to exceptionally successful type — that which literally disappears before their eyes. The function of type is to carry meaning; it's the scaffolding for semantics.

Type does matter. This is art.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Saturday, March 2, 2013

World Peace

by Lucia Judy

My 10 year-old daughter drew this couple in the corner of the World Peace poster she made for a school project.

She’s always wanted to be an architect. It’s her passion. She was once told by a teacher at her school that she wasn’t allowed to put down “Architect” on a future careers form. The teacher told her to write something like “Dental Hygienist” instead. She was recently accepted into a prestigious Science and Technology Academy in order to get the math, computer modeling and civil engineering skills she’ll need to pursue her dream.

I mention this because her drawing reminds me of the ways in which the idiot teacher’s attitude will just be the beginning of the journey she’ll have among discriminatory idiots as she gets older.

I love the looks on this couple’s faces. I love the Rock Out! shirt. I love the way their love is a visible, public thing floating in the air between them. I love that my daughter, who has been reed-thin all her life, doesn’t give a fat flying fuck about what idiots tell her about what’s possible in life, or who you should love, or what you look like. 

Future Architect