What’s at Steak, Here

Jocelyn Sheffield: I’d like you all to meet Nigel Waters, the Duke of Salisbury.
Fran Fine: Oh, I love your steak.
Nigel Waters: Thank you. Lord Worcestershire and I get together every Sunday for a barbecue.
Maxwell Sheffield: And the Earl of Sandwich pops by for leftovers.

The Nanny, “Stop the Wedding, I Want to Get Off” (3/16/94)

Someone recently invited me to join a cooking enthusiasts’ group on Facebook. I do enjoy cooking, so I accepted the invitation. It wasn’t long before I realized that I was pretty hopelessly outclassed by most of the people in that crowd. But what the heck, I thought: maybe I’ll learn something.

A few weeks ago, someone posed an interesting question to the page:

There’s a line in here that maybe should have provided a big hint.

I thought about this a little bit. What good could confectioner’s sugar possibly do?

Confectioner’s sugar is regular sugar that’s been ground into a fine powder. There are several different levels of grind available, but the most common kind is the “10X”, which means it’s been ground ten times. When you purchase this stuff commercially, however, there’s also a little bit of cornstarch added to the sugar to keep it from clumping. That’s why you can’t just use it in your tea when you’re out of granulated sugar.

So, taking all this into account, I opined that because confectioner’s sugar has some cornstarch in it, there’s the possibility that some of the juices that might drip out would instead stick to the surface. And while most dry rubs contain some (brown) sugar, I really couldn’t see that it would make a ton of difference. Other people said much the same thing, coming down especially hard on any suggestion that searing “seals in the juices”. If you know anything at all about cooking, you know that part’s pretty much a crock.

But stuff like that stays with me, and I got curious enough to actually try it. Would you like to see what happened?

Tonight, both Wife and Wee One were at the ballgame in Aberdeen, so I was on my own for dinner. Originally I was going to stop off at the supermarket and get something extra sad to eat, like a pot pie or a frozen pizza. Something not so complicated that would fill me up. And then the steak thing popped into my head. So I went to the meat department and found some boneless ribeye steaks. Then off to Produce to put a salad together from the salad bar. (I’ve been eating at the stadium the last three nights; there aren’t a lot of vitamins going on around there. Season Tickets can be a pain sometimes.) I got it all home—and it just started to rain. Ugh.

OK, kid, change of plans. Instead of grilling the steak, I’ll have to broil it instead. We’re not letting rain get in the way of Science. Let’s go to the photos:

This is the ribeye steak I chose to work with. It’s got a bit of an odd shape because the Giant puts it in a vacuum pack, and I’ve just cracked it out of there. The steak is about 10-12 ounces (best estimate; it was a three-pack).
Because of the vacuum packing, I gave it a light beating on both sides with my tenderizing mallet.
A light dusting—again on both sides—with the Montreal Seasoning. Not too much because I don’t want it to overwhelm the Experimental Ingredient. I tapped it again with the flat side of the mallet to keep the seasoning from falling off.
And then a dusting with the confectioner’s sugar. There’s a little bit more on the steak than it appears, because some of the sugar has already dissolved.
And now, onto my Teeny Tiny Broiling Pan. Four and a half minutes on one side, then flip it over and cook until the thermometer reads 135 degrees Fahrenheit.
The finished product, resting until it gets up to 140, which only took a couple of minutes. Medium-rare, baby.
The pan, post-broiling. Some of the fat has rendered and most of the color you see in the bottom is bits of the seasoning, rather than “juices”. So maybe the cornstarch retained some of it?
With a cut taken out of it so you can see the color and the juices, again. I hit a nice medium-rare, temperature-wise, but the meat spent more time with this side up than the other side, so you can see that the pink isn’t quite centered but instead is closer to the bottom. And don’t worry, I put it on a different, clean plate.

But the bottom line is in the flavor, yes? Of course. I took a bite. And frankly it didn’t have a lot of effect on the steak as a whole. It’s not as though it had developed a candy shell or anything. What I did notice was that the burned sections were really caramelized sugar, and they followed the thicker fat lines from the steak. Therefore, eating those burned parts wasn’t as unpleasant as it typically would be, because there was a slight element of sweetness behind them.

So…as far as the original question is concerned, I’m going with a big fat No. It doesn’t make the meat juicier or, for that matter, sweeter. It does help a little bit when you get to the burned bits, but then again would they have burned as much had they not been sugared? Eh, probably not.

So it was an interesting experiment but in the end I decided it’s not really worth repeating.

Father’s D’Oh

Walter: One wrong note eventually ruins the entire symphony.

—Alien: Covenant (2017)

Let me tell you about my Father’s Day today.

It’s possible—but not likely—that this is my last Father’s Day with one of my kids in the house. Daughter is living the adult life in North Carolina, and now that Wee One has graduated from high school, we have to consider the possibility that she’ll be spending her summers working, or otherwise occupied somewhere other than this immediate area.

So I figured, hey. Let’s do a little day trip, just the three of us. And everybody was good with it, so we packed into the car and headed up to the little town of Gardiners, Pennsylvania. I had two destinations in mind. Up in Gardiners there’s a farm stand called Peter’s, which isn’t a huge deal or anything, but it’s a destination and it’s a reasonable distance from home. We head up I-83 from the city, jump off a few miles after crossing the state line, and from there it’s a bunch of rural and semi-rural roads. So…nice views, rolling hills, just relax and sing along with the radio and gab about whatever, and then buy some strawberries or whatever’s in season (plus a surprise for Daughter next time she visits). AND, as we cruise through the area, there are a bunch of little antique and second-hand stores in between that we can poke in and out of.

Shortly before Peter’s however, in the town of York Springs, there’s a place called Concrete Jungle. It’s a small business dedicated to making, and selling, concrete statues, planters, birdbaths and such for people’s gardens. We’ve been there a few times and picked up a few items for our yard. This isn't ours because, as usual, I'm writing in the middle of the night and can't take a picture. More often than not, when we get something we’re paying a pretty low price for it compared to, say, Home Depot or Lowe’s. (As a For Instance, we purchased a pagoda lantern very much like the one in this picture for about $40; anywhere else it’d be twice that.) So this time around we popped in because we were in the market for a pair of matched planters for the front of the house. And sure enough, we managed to find a couple of nice ones that went for about $50 for the pair. Sweet! They’re plain concrete right now but we can color and then seal them to match the steps. I’d take a photo of them, but they’re still in my trunk. Also, it’s dark outside as I write this.


We picked up some strawberries and a couple of other goodies from Peter’s, then headed home. It was during this leg of the trip that we realized we hadn’t really eaten. As we passed through the town of East Berlin, Wife spotted a pit beef place and suggested we stop in there.

And that’s where things started to go south.

The place is called Hog Wild. It’s set back from the street and fronted by a patio with picnic tables. A few other, smaller tables sat on an elevated platform along one of the walls. The walls surrounding this area are covered with vintage (or, more likely, “vintage”) signs (not a knock, I know you can get a lot of these via catalogs and such). Inside are two or three tables and a service counter. We went inside and pored over the menu for a minute. Wife had a couple of questions because of her allergy, and the guy behind the counter, who turned out to be Rick the owner, was brief but forthcoming with his replies. His attitude seemed to have a little of “these guys aren’t locals; I’m gonna screw with them a little bit” or maybe he was just feeling a little acerbic, I don’t know. But Wife ordered Pit Beef without a roll (again, because allergies) but with onion. Then she asked if there was more than one size of the French fries, and he said, “There’s only one size: small.” So she ordered fries as well, and a lemonade. I was up next and ordered a Pit Beef sandwich with a roll, and with a little bit of onion. He asked if I wanted any barbecue sauce or anything on it, and I said “Oh–sure. I thought I saw it on the table, that’s why I didn’t bring it up.” He told me that it was out there, so I told him not to bother putting it on the sandwich, this way I could experiment with the different sauces out there. I ordered a can of Coke to go with it. Wee One ordered the Smoked Dip, which is essentially a Pit Beef sandwich with a side of Au Jus for dipping, an order of fries that she wanted to split with me, and also a lemonade. Total for these three lunches: $38.11. A little pricey, but OK. However, when I broke out my credit card, he simply pointed over my shoulder to the ATM and told me I could get money from there. Ugh. A little warning before this point would have been nice. I went to the ATM, withdrew $40 (and, of course, paid ATM fees since it’s an out-of-network machine), paid him and we went outside to wait.

And wait.

And wait.

And wait some more. I thought maybe I was just being impatient and not keeping track of the time, but the timestamp on my ATM slip said that I’d taken the money out at 2:10. By this point it was nearly 2:40. I said to Wife, “It doesn’t seem like they’re especially busy and our order wasn’t that complicated; I wonder what’s going on?” Wee One noted that nearly everyone out on the patio was waiting for food, and they’d all been there at least as long as we had.

At about 2:55 our food finally came out. The girl who served us asked Wife about her food sensitivity, because she was having a problem of her own and hadn’t nailed it down yet. Before she walked away, I said, “Can I ask a question? Is a 45-minute wait for the food typical?” This was genuine curiosity on my part; I’d been in plenty of pit beef places and while all of them had some kind of wait, none of them took that long. She looked taken aback by the question, almost as though nobody had ever asked it before. She said, “It’s not fast food!”

I said, “I get that, but I didn’t think you needed to raise the cow first.” Which I admit was a little snotty, but also so hyperbolic that nobody could reasonably think I meant it. Her reply: “I’m not forcing you to eat here.” That’s when I said, “Whoa. All right, then.” and let it go.

After she left, we talked about whether I’d said anything that was truly out of line, and ended up with “eh, not really.” Because here’s the thing: it’s a yes-or-no answer, really: either the answer is “No, but we’re shorthanded/we’re busier than usual/something broke down in the kitchen/whatever” or it’s “Yes, we spend all our effort on each order before moving on to the next/we hand-cut the fries so they take longer/something else.” Going on immediate defense with something like “It’s not fast food” was a little out of left field.

We began to eat our food. My sandwich, which I’d ordered with “a little bit of onion” had nearly as much onion as it did beef, but that’s no tragedy; I took off what I didn’t want and moved along. The food was…fine. It was pit beef; we’re not talking Serious Gourmet stuff here. As we finished our food, Rick himself came out asking if there was a problem with the food. “No,” I said. “The food was fine.”

“OK,” he replied, “because you upset my daughter when she was out here, and—”

Now frankly, I don’t really remember what the rest of his sentence was, because now I’m replaying in my head and I said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, all I asked was—”

Unfortunately for me, he was on a roll and told me he didn’t want to hear about my whoa whoa whoas. (Yes, he told me that.) I repeated: “I just asked her whether a 45-minute wait was typical.”

“Do you see all the tables in there?” All three of them? Sure, I guess. That launched him into another tirade about if the food was no good he’d be happy to refund our money and send us on our way. Again I said, “The food was fine.” Now he’s moved on to We don’t need your kind here and I’m going to ask you to leave. I’m literally just sitting there wondering what the hell is going on. At this point the most I can muster up is just “Wow….Wow…” and then “OK.” I stand up and without another word, walk away from the place. Wife and Wee One, who have said very little at this point (because they were just as stunned), also got up and left, but that didn’t stop Rick, oh no. He kept on yelling at us, and at the other customers about us. I didn’t realize at the time he was doing that, because I’d left so directly that I figured that Wife had engaged with him and now he was yelling at her. But nope: they were right behind me and he was still doing his thing as I reached my car, across the street, with the rest of my family pretty much on my heels.

So in the end I really don’t know what set anyone off here. Maybe he was having an especially bad day. Maybe being in a town called East Berlin puts you in a Cold War frame of mind. Maybe when there are few other options for eating in a small town, you can generally get away with stuff like that. Maybe a million things. But the fact is, when you go to a small town, pay $40 for lunch ($2 ATM fee counts, in my book), and get abused out of the blue by the owner, it puts a bad taste in your mouth—you should excuse the expression—for the entire town.

Remember what I said several paragraphs ago about going antiquing as well? There are several places in East Berlin, PA that we had earmarked as potential stops when we were on the way up to Peter’s. Do you think we stopped in any of them on the way back? Not a chance. Our instinct was to get out of town as quickly as possible. But there were a few places that got our attention, and our money…in Thomasville, and Shrewsbury, and a couple of other spots on the way home.

Haddock Crateful

C.J. Cregg: You guys are like Butch and Sundance peering over the edge of a cliff to the boulder-filled rapids 300 feet below, thinking you better not jump ’cause there’s a chance you might drown. The President has this disease and has been lying about it, and you guys are worried that the polling might make us look bad? It’s the fall that’s gonna kill ya.

The West Wing, “The Fall’s Gonna Kill You” (5/2/01)

NEARLY ICKY IMAGE ALERT: If you’re my brother, don’t look at the end of this post. Maybe wait a few weeks and then come back. For everyone else, be warned that this post is long and rambling and, if I had any smarts, would be more than one post.

So my brother (the one mentioned in the previous paragraph) was recently injured in a fall at work. I told you a little about this a couple of posts ago. The fall wasn’t from a huge height, but it was a complicated one, enough so that Wile E. Coyote would be proud, I think. So, he had a broken pelvis requiring surgery and some interesting shenanigans in the rehab center that I don’t think I’m supposed to talk about.

When he first got hurt, his wife called me to tell me what had happened, and I don’t think she got more than a few sentences out before I started going through checklists in my head outlining what I needed to do in order to get down there. My brother, being pretty wise to how I think, had already issued a strict order for me NOT to come down, since there really wasn’t much I could do anyway. I took him at his word and stayed away, for a few weeks anyway.

As it happened, I’d already arranged for a visit to Beacon College, which is located in Leesburg, Florida. Leesburg is about an hour or so northwest of Orlando and just under two hours’ drive from my brother’s place. So when I set my visit date, I did it with an eye toward making it a long weekend so I could visit my brother.

Let me digress for a minute and talk about Beacon College: it’s a college which, like Landmark College (also mentioned not that long ago), is designed specifically for students with reading difficulties, with ADHD or who are considered to be somewhere on the autism spectrum. Their entire approach to educating students lies in determining how the student learns, how they process information, and then coming up with a plan of action that aims directly at that learning difference. The school itself is composed of several buildings in the downtown Leesburg area, such that you’re not entirely sure where the school ends and the town begins. Anyway, it’s a great school (and, if you’re interested, one of only a couple in the nation–and one of only 23 in the WORLD–with an Anthrozoology program) and worth considering if you suspect you’re smarter than your grades might indicate.

The folks at Beacon were amazing, and the 60-90 minute tour I’d expected turned into three hours of touring and some in-depth chat, and I’m hoping that they can pair up with my high school for some future project.

From there, I headed down to my brother’s place. I gotta say, I was pretty exhausted by this point, because I drove almost straight through from Baltimore to Leesburg, a 14-hour drive under the best of circumstances. I left around 8:30 PM on Tuesday and had no choice really but to stop in a couple of rest areas and do some catnapping (one of those catnaps was nearly three hours, in a gas station parking lot). So by the time I arrived at my hotel on Wednesday, I was pretty tapped out. I managed to get some sleep Wednesday night, but I don’t have the bounce-back skills I used to. I checked into the hotel near my brother’s house, then went to see what he was up to.

We had a happy little reunion, and ordered some takeout food from a place nearby. After dinner was a little more chatter, and he started talking about how he’d like to get out of the house for awhile, if I don’t mind. Hey, anything you want, amigo. We made plans for a couple of potential destinations on Friday, and I was back at the hotel.

Friday morning, I got to his place, and he wanted to visit his place of work. Now, getting him anywhere involves him using a walker to get to the car, and him using a wheelchair to get anywhere else once we arrive. I figure out a way to fit the wheelchair into my trunk, throw the walker into my backseat, and off we go…back to the Scene of the Crime.

Let me tell you something: they really like my brother over there at his place of work. I don’t think I’ve ever been greeted with that level of enthusiasm, anywhere (never mind at my job). He was chit-chatting with people before he even got out of the car. If you check out Frank Hagney's career on IMDB, you'll see that he has many more uncredited roles than credited ones. And in the office and the warehouse, it started to feel sort of like a scene from A Hard Day’s Night. I started to feel a little bit like the guy in It’s a Wonderful Life who does nothing but stand behind Mr. Potter and push his chair around. But it was pretty clear that they wanted him back as soon as possible, even if it was just part-time. My brother, being extra macho and whatnot, opined that he’d like to come back on a full-time basis if possible.

Our other destination was to see the water. That’s all; he just wanted to see the water. So from his workplace we headed down US19, and then a road called Alternate 19, which splits off from the main road in the town of Holiday and runs a little closer to the water. All the way down, we talked about how the area has changed since we were younger. I noted to him that there was a period of time where I’d constantly get lost because so much had changed during the year or so that would pass between visits. That actually happened to me on this visit, because I didn’t know that a road in his town had been completely re-routed to accommodate the expansion of a park.

As we got closer to the town of Tarpon Springs, he suggested that we make the turn down Dodecanese Boulevard, along the Anclote River toward the Sponge Docks. Dodecanese Blvd. is the heart of Tarpon Springs’ tourist industry, and hardly a day goes by that isn’t thronged with people who come to buy natural sponges, eat Greek food or just take a stroll along the docks to see the sponge boats doing their thing. You can even take a sponge-diving tour, where they give you the whole story of how the industry started in the late 1800s, and how the process of harvesting and preparing sponges hasn’t changed substantially since then. In fact, the Sponge Docks area hadn’t changed substantially during most of that time: the first time I visited was as a 12-year-old in 1975, and it was much the same until I was deep into my adulthood. Then along came a storm (I can’t remember which one) which, between the storm itself and the water surging up the riverbanks, pretty much wiped out the entire area. The town got a huge pile of money from the government to re-build, and nearly every building was restored.


Don’t let the nice paint job fool you; that paint may be the only thing keeping the insides of this building inside.

One building survived the storm, and oddly enough it was very close to the river. That building is called Sponge-O-Rama, and it’s the home of a couple of free exhibits that will teach you about the history and heritage of the local Sponge Industry. This comes in two flavors: Flavor One is the movie they show you, that loops around about every fifteen minutes. The film is dated, they’ll concede, but they keep it around because it’s such good documentation of the stuff they do. This film looked old in 1973 and it’s not looking much better, having been transferred from film to video tape and now to DVD from the video, so you’re treated to scanning errors and color bleeding. From there it’s on to the Sponge Museum, which is a labyrinth of poorly-lit full-size dioramas set behind plexiglass that’s so old, it’s started to fog up and is harder to see through every year. This area looks exactly the same way it did in 1973, and I’m pretty sure that the only thing keeping this part of the building together is the termites holding hands. And yet…it’s so goddamn charming that I can’t not go there when I’m in town. Except this time, of course, because my brother can’t get out of the car without a hassle and this was just a side trip, anyway. So after a pass through the area in each direction, we returned to Alternate 19 and continued down another couple of miles to the Honeymoon Island Causeway. We drove down the causeway, taking our time, until we got to the point where, in order to proceed, we’d have to pay a toll. Well, once again getting out of the car and into the sand wasn’t on the agenda, so I turned the car around and cruised back up the causeway. At one point I found a break in the railings and took my car down to the beach itself (about where the arrow is in the picture above), where I backed up against the rail and we sat there, chitchatting and watching the water. After awhile we headed back up the road (waiting for a sailboat to come through the drawbridge) and hit the local supermarket to get stuff for me to make dinner. He’d found a recipe in Food Network Magazine he was hot to try, but since he couldn’t stand up long enough to cook, we figured I could do the cooking and he could help with prep. (Go to the link; it’s good stuff!)

So while he was up and getting ready to cut up some peppers, he said to me, “Hey, wanna see the scar?” I, being no fool, said certainly. He told me that he hadn’t even seen it because he figured it’d make him woozy. So if you’re my brother, don’t look! Here it comes!

That's his right hip you're looking at.

Oh, and here’s some good news: he’s making his return to work, part-time, today! Go get ’em, man! They’re eager to have you back!

Those Who Serve

Usually when I do a Memorial Day post, I’ll put in this space pictures of soldiers, or monuments, or a collection of editorial cartoons designed to remind you that it’s not all about the barbecues. This year I was looking at some memorial sites and it occurred to me that while we have lots of memorials here in the US, there are several thousand soldiers who never made it home, alive or dead. And it got me to thinking about how soldiers of any nationality are memorialized. Here are some images of war memorial activities and places in other parts of the world.

Australian War Memorial, Canberra
British veterans on the parade ground outside Westminster Abbey commemorating the 7oth anniversary of V-E day, 2015.
Cambridge American Cemetery in England. Over 3800 American soldiers are buried here.
French President Francois Hollande re-kindles the Eternal Flame at their Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, May 2016. Out of frame (a few feet to the photographer’s left) are American soldiers who joined the ceremony.
I’m pulling this caption in its entirety from the Air Force’s website: A spectator plants flowers on a headstone at the Netherlands American Cemetery prior to the start of a Memorial Day ceremony May 25, 2014, Margraten, Netherlands. Dutch families can adopt a gravesite and maintain it as a way of showing respect for the actions of the fallen service member.
Soviet War Memorial in Berlin
Sailors from Navy Munitions Command East Asia Division Unit Guam join their sister village of Talofofo at a Memorial Day service held near the Talofofo Mayor’s Office May 24, 2014
Memorial Day ceremony, Seoul, South Korea.

I think one of the things that struck me most was that they’re largely indistinguishable from their counterparts here in the US. Wherever we are in the world, we honor those who gave everything they had in service to their country.


Too Cool School

Sue Heck: We have to do something to help. I gave up my trip, so they don’t have to pay for it. And you guys better start thinking of ways we can save money, too.
Axl Heck: No way! It’s their fault. They don’t know how to budget. They should’ve stopped having kids after me. You guys are the real money drain with your braces and your special school.
Brick Heck: I don’t go to a special school.
Axl Heck: You don’t?

The Middle, “The Hose” (10/17/12)

This week I made a visit to a college in Vermont. Not for the benefit of Daughter, who is long-graduated, or Wee One, who’s already been accepted to a school in Pennsylvania, but for the benefit of my students.

Specifically, I was invited to visit Landmark College in the town of Putney, VT for their Professional Visit Days. Landmark isn’t just any college, oh no. Landmark is a school entirely geared toward students with learning differences, including reading difficulties, ADHD, and even students who fall on the autism spectrum. Most of the students who attend there have flunked out of some other school, because that school didn’t really have a handle on their learning style. So in a way, it’s a college version of the high school I’m working in, with the overage and under-credited kids. And even with the disproportionate number of Special Education students, although they’re at 100% where we’re more like 30%.

Landmark bills themselves as “The college of choice for students who learn differently,” and everything they do is geared toward that fact. The first thing they do with students is try to figure out what that difference is, what their learning style is, how their minds work. They put a lot of neuroscience research into this, and have come up with their working definition of Executive Function (short version: it’s how your brain controls all of your processes), which they use to help the students plan a means of approaching their education. And one of the first things they do is focus on the student’s STRENGTHS rather than their deficits. So, for example, if a student has a low processing speed, that’s reframed as the student working deliberately and taking their time to get the right answer. (I usually tell them, “you’re not fast, but you’re accurate” which is a step in the right direction, I think.)

At any rate, Landmark has a very low staff-to-student ratio, and a class of 15 is considered to be pretty big. There’s an emphasis on coaching the students without constantly holding their hands (they’re still responsible for college-level work, after all), and on Universal Design in Learning, something which I’ve argued for for a long time, and frequently gotten pushback over (“If you’re accommodating everybody, then you’re accommodating nobody!”, which is crap). And while they’re not on the cutting edge from a technology standpoint, they do have a very good handle on what works with their students and what doesn’t.

Props to Craig Froehle for this image
This illustrates it well, except that it assumes that the problem is with the people, when in fact it’s also a matter of the terrain they’re standing on that’s providing hassles. Also there’s a fence, and maybe that should be removed altogether. I dunno, something’s vaguely wrong with the metaphor here, but in the end I do like it, even if I’m overthinking it.

As I noted earlier, Landmark is located in Putney, Vermont, which feels like the middle of nowhere but really isn’t. It’s only a few miles from Brattleboro, and also a stone’s throw from Keene, New Hampshire, where most of the bigger stores are (e.g. Walmart). Many students, despite their age, don’t have transportation of their own, so the school arranges lots of field trips to the movie theater, or over to Keene, or other traveling-based activities. Plus, there are lots of things to do on campus as well. For a school with only about 500 students, there is definitely more than its share of things to do.

One of the revelations I had when visiting this school was the way that the students, almost to the last, all gave me some version of “I knew I had a disability, but I really didn’t know what that meant/how it related to me.” All of them have stories about being given medication, or someone else doing their schoolwork for them, or being excluded from their own IEP meetings. From that standpoint, I have to say that again, we’re ahead of the curve a little bit, since I insist that students attend and participate in their own meetings (there’s not much I can do with truant kids, but if they’re in the building, sure). I have more work to do in this area, to be sure, but it’s good to know that I’m better than most.

Next week I’ll be visiting Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida. That visit won’t be as comprehensive as Landmark, but I still hope I’ll learn a lot and have some exciting stuff to share when I return.


Ahead of the Curve

Ida: I didn’t know, nobody told me that it cost money to get old. I just figured that was one thing you got for free. But it isn’t: the retirement home costs money, the doctors cost money, medicine costs money. I always thought it was so sad I’d outlived my whole family; but I didn’t know that it was going to be a punishment.

The Golden Girls, “Brother, Can You Spare That Jacket?” (12/3/88)

I have two brothers: one of them is about a year and a half younger than I am, and the other one is about six years younger. This story is going to be about the older of the two.

So when he was in his late 20s, he met and married a woman who is a few years older than he is. She had had a daughter when she was sixteen, who in turn had a daughter when she was sixteen years old. This basically made my brother a grandfather at the age of 28.

That daughter had two other children, one of whom is now in her early 20s and recently became a parent herself. So now my brother, at the age of 53, is a great-grandfather.

A few years ago, a series of incidents took place which ended with my brother’s insurance company paying off his mortgage. So in his late 40s, he was able to stop making mortgage payments.

If this had happened, he wouldn't have broken his damn pelvis. A few weeks ago, my brother was at work. He was on a ladder, about five feet up, when he lost his balance and fell. Being only about five feet in the air, ordinarily this wouldn’t be too big of a deal, but in this case it was a little more of a convoluted situation and he went down hard, breaking his hip and pelvis in a few places. Now he’s doing rehab and getting around with a walker (though healing nicely so far).

So…grandfather at 28, house paid off in his 40s, great-grandfather at 53, now breaking a hip? It seems to me that he’s reaching most of his life milestones about 20 years too early.

On the bright side, he’s never He's been known to do this. especially worried about kids being on his lawn.

Movin’ On Over

The Wolf: Maybe I can give you guys a ride. Where do you live?
Vincent: Redondo Beach.
Jules: Inglewood.
The Wolf: In your future… I see a cab ride. Move out of the sticks, gentlemen.

Pulp Fiction (1994)

This may be the first time I've attached a picture to the quotation.






So if you’re paying attention—and chances are, you’re not—you may have noticed a few changes here at Baltimore Diary.

First, there’s a new layout. I’m not quite sure I’m happy with it, but I’m still fooling around with it. We’ll see how that shakes out. The TV and movie quotes will remain; they’re a fun gimmick, even though they’re also probably the hardest part of my blog posts. Sometimes it takes me longer to find a good quotation than it does to write a post.

The tall boxes are for the longer posts. But the other important thing is that Baltimore Diary has its own domain now! Welcome to BaltimoreDiary.org!

There’s no more clunky Typepad address to deal with, and I think that’s pretty much all the difference for you. That, and the URLs of the posts appear to be a little less straightforward. But that’s OK, given that the URLs for the posts with longer titles tended to get weirdly complicated.

This blog is powered by WordPress software, as opposed to the Moveable Type software that Typepad works with, and while all 800-something of the posts have ported over, the formatting may be a little clunky, or images may be missing. I’ll do my best to straighten some of that out.

Incidentally, this has nothing to do with any dissatisfaction with Typepad; they were a good home for many years. I just wanted a little bit of a different look, and the company that handled the domain purchase offered up a really good deal for the hosting, and that’s about that. Maybe that’s a little cold-blooded on my part, but I’m sure everyone will get over it before long.

Way Too Many Details

Nina Van Horn: You think too much.
Maya Gallo: That’s my style.
Nina Van Horn: Yeah, well, you’ve been trying the same style for fifteen years now. How’s that working out?

Just Shoot Me!, “Maya Stops Thinking” (5/3/01)


Warning: This is going to be excruciatingly boring. I know it because I’ve actually told this to people, and I can watch them just glaze over. But, what the hell. I should update this thing more often, so sometimes you get wheat, and other times you get chaff.

It drives my doctor crazy that my A1C number is so high. She’s always poking around in my habits to find out whether I’ve got soft signs of Type II Diabetes (so far, no). And one of the questions she asks me is whether I’m thirsty a lot. The reason for that is because the excess sugar in your system will draw more water out, so you’re urinating more often. Dehydration = extra thirsty. But the problem is, early on in my adult life I got into the habit of having something to sip on with me nearly all the time. So when I decide I’m thirsty, it’s more like a force of habit thing—“Hey, I don’t have a drink nearby”—than it is an actual Being Thirsty thing. There are lots of times I’ll make a cup of tea or something, and then forget all about it. It’s just good to have it nearby and such. At any rate, peeing a lot and having a beverage on-hand all the time are just part of my normal routine. I drink a lot, therefore I pee a lot. And lemme tell you, oftentimes during the day, that urine is so clear, it’s practically potable. I’m soooo hydrated, yo.

But my blood sugar is not what I’m writing about today, not specifically. It’s my choice of beverage, and the weird lengths I go to with it.

In the morning, and during the day, I’m all about the tea. Hot tea with my breakfast sandwich, then I make a pot of the stuff at work and have a few cups of that throughout the morning. If I don’t finish the pot, I pour what remains into a plastic container and drink it cold, and unsweetened. (Back to the blood sugar thing for a moment: I put a single packet of sugar into each mug of tea I drink—and I usually use 12 ounce mugs. So my sugar intake from tea isn’t much, considering how much hot tea I drink.) Near the end of the day, I’ll probably have a can of Coca-Cola. And there begins the downslide, because soda is definitely my downfall.

So now I’m on the Coke Train, and when I’m on the way home, I’ll stop and get a fountain beverage. And here’s where I fully concede I get weird.

This could easily be me. More often than not, I stop at 7-Eleven and get myself the Super Big Gulp of soda. That’s the 44-ounce cup, and it’s actually at least TWO steps down from their largest. Hey, I’m no pig. But anyway, one of the reasons I like the 7-Eleven is that they give you a discounted price on the refills, so the cost gets cut nearly in half. (Getting the occasional freebie via their app is cool, too.) But the other thing you have to deal with is getting the clerk’s attention when you first come in, so they see you’re doing a refill. Sometimes if they don’t see you come in with the cup, they give you a hard time. So my tactic is to go in with a cup from another place, like Wawa, or Sheetz, or Royal Farms. This way there’s absolutely no question whether I’m getting a refill. And, of course, most times they still ask me, “Is that a refill?”

Man, I was dumb when I was younger, but when I worked in a 7-Eleven, I wasn’t that dumb. Maybe a little naïve, but that’s another story.

Look at that terrible, terrible lid.So if I’m not getting a refill, I’m less choosy about where I go. However, Royal Farms, Wawa and Sheetz all have a fatal flaw with their cups: the lids suck. They’re made of  this soft, flimsy plastic that doesn’t fit very well over the tops of the cups (looking especially hard at you, Wawa), and you really have to work to get that lid on correctly. Sometimes you wind up going through two or three lids to get one that fits right. And—AND!—more often than not, if you tilt the cup a little bit for those first few sips, the lid will leak and now you’ve got soda all down your shirt. As it happens, however, 7-Eleven has GREAT lids. They’re a slightly harder, transparent plastic, and best of all, they fit on all the other guys’ cups. What ‘s more, they fit better AND easier on the other guys’ cups. So now I’m going into 7-Eleven with the foreign cup, and snapping a 7-Eleven lid on top. (UPDATE: Royal Farms has finally gotten decent lids on the big cups! Hallelujah!)

But wait—that’s not where the madness ends. We still have to deal with the STRAWS.

7-Eleven straws are way too fat. So when you’re taking a sip, you wind up swallowing a lot of air before any drink gets into your mouth. Wawa has a nice, skinny straw, Sheetz isn’t bad and Royal Farms….well, they had the nice straws until they replaced them a couple of months ago with these fat blue ones. Pfui. So my habit is to re-use the Wawa straws for as long as I can, but I also take an extra whenever I’m in there. So if I have to go to Royal Farms or 7-Eleven for a new cup, I skip the straw and take one from the stash in my glovebox.

So, to recap:

  • Most beverages from 7-Eleven because of the refill discount;
  • Cups usually from Wawa but also Royal Farms or Sheetz;
  • Lids from 7-Eleven because everyone else’s suck;
  • Straws have to be from Wawa or, in a pinch, Sheetz.

And yes, I do think about this stuff too much.

Rhapsody in Balut

[Flipping a coin to choose between "ducks" and "clowns."]

Joey: Ducks is "Heads", because ducks have heads.
[a long beat]
Chandler: What kind of scary-ass clowns came to your birthday?

Friends, “The One With the Baby on the Bus” (11/2/95)


Today I had a surprise adventure!

RambutanThe school in which I work has several Filipino teachers, and they know that I once had a roommate with Filipino roots, and that I enjoyed some of the food she made, and so every now and again when they make something traditional, they’ll bring some to me to try. So we’ve had Adobo together (no relation to the seasoning you can get from Goya), Pancit, a noodle dish whose name escapes me, and a few exotic fruits, including one called Rambutan, which you can see in the picture to the left. “Rambutan” literally means “hairy”, which refers to the coarse“hairs” that grow from the fruit. To eat a Rambutan, you hold it in both hands and, with your thumbs, you squeeze down and pull apart at the same time. The skin just splits open, leaving this white fruit inside. It’s got the approximate taste and texture of a grape, but beware the huge seed inside. Anyway, it’s tasty, although I like them chilled, which will brown the hairs a little bit.

So a couple of years ago we were talking about some of the foods I’d heard of, and some I hadn’t, and one of them brought up Balut. They were surprised to learn that I’d actually heard of it, but the only reason I knew anything about it at all was because I’d seen them eating it on Survivor. Balut is basically a working-class street food in the Phillipines, and I’m told that it’s most often sold in the evening from roadside stands. It’s basically a hard-boiled, fertilized and incubated duck egg.


You read that correctly. Duck eggs are fertilized and then incubated, so that a duck embryo begins to form inside. The longer the egg is incubated, the more formed the baby duck will be. However, Balut is always eaten while the bones are still soft enough to be eaten whole. You can buy the eggs based on how long they’ve been incubated. The most popular eggs are about 16-18 days old. The egg is then hard-boiled for about thirty minutes and finally plunged into ice water to stop the cooking. The eggs are served cool, or lightly warmed, and usually with beer.

So there we were, chatting about Balut and I’d said something about how I’d heard of it and I thought it would be a cool thing to try. They thought this would be pretty hilarious, and set their plans to get me some Balut. As it happened, their first attempt fell through, but it wasn’t anyone’s fault. We were at a staff function and they didn’t realize that I had to leave early. It seemed like the matter was largely dropped. Until…

…this afternoon! One of the teachers came in and said, “By the way, I brought some Balut today, if you still want to try it.” Are you kidding? This is going to be wild! What a break in my otherwise routine day! She went back to her classroom and came back with two eggs, saying we needed a container to warm them up. I broke out my soup mug and we put the eggs into it, then covered them with water and microwaved them to get them warmed up a little. Then I took the cup out to the water fountain and drained off the water. In the meantime, a couple of my officemates gathered to watch the hijinks. The photos, incidentally, were taken by the co-worker who brought in the Baluts.

Eggs in cupCup O’ Baluts.

I had done a little research on how you’re supposed to eat a Balut, and so I had an intellectual idea of what was supposed to happen. The first thing is that you take the egg, which is just a little larger than a typical chicken egg, and turn it “blunt” side up. There’s a little space in there, between the egg’s shell and the top of the cooked embryo. You break out the top of the egg, and there’s supposed to be some broth inside, floating on top.

Tapping it open

If you watch videos of people eating Balut for the first time, they usually just sip it out of the top. And they usually say it tastes just like chicken broth. So here I am in the photo at left, carefully tapping the end off the egg with a fork so I can expose the broth. By the way, my hair is a complete wreck because I just ran a wet brush through it this morning without using any stuff to hold it in place.
No broth inside

Unfortunately, and it’s tough to see in this picture, there wasn’t any broth in the top of the egg. Sad for me, but I was told that that’s not atypical.

Peeling away some more shell So I started peeling away the shell. Inside was essentially textured like a hard-boiled egg, except instead of white albumen, I was treated to a grayish-tan color with blue lines shot through it (proto-veins?), mottled with yellow in spots. I was being careful about removing the shell, and my assistant asked me if I was delaying on purpose. I said, “Yeah, a little.”
About to bite So in this pic the egg is pretty much peeled and I’m about to take my first bite.

One of the reasons I was a little hesitant was that, while I knew intellectually that the egg had been boiled, I somehow hadn’t counted on the egg being so much like a hard-boiled egg. And while I do like eggs, I don’t much like hard-boiled eggs. Ah, well.

One down One bite gone. So far it just tastes like hard-boiled egg. So at this point I opt to add a little salt and pepper to it.
That's duck in there Another bite or two down. See that dark spot in there, the brown area near my thumb? That’s the baby duck. It doesn’t look like much of anything, though.

It’s at this point that my co-worker scrutinized my egg and opined that my egg was roughly 11-12 days into the incubation process.

Jones can't deal My assistant just can’t deal with this. She thinks the whole idea is gross.

Starting to fall apart

At this point there’s maybe one or two bites left, but the different components are also separating, so the whole thing is falling apart. Now the flavor is like boiled egg, but with a definite poultry overtone, too.
One bite left At this point, the only reason I’m struggling with this is because I just don’t dig the hard-boiled egg thing, but I’m determined to finish it. The Balut tastes fine, but the texture of the egg put me off. My assistant gets me a can of Coca-Cola so I can wash it all down (because it’s a little dry, after all).  

I finally take what’s left and shove it into my mouth.

Achievement Unlocked!

So I finally got to try Balut, and that was cool fun. Have you had any weird food adventures?

Thanks for Sharing

Frankie Heck: Okay, listen, Mike, I was thinking. You know how we always say that only losers and sad, pathetic people go out to dinner for Thanksgiving?

Mike Heck: So you’re saying we’re going out this year?

The Middle, “Thanksgiving VI” (11/19/14)


Have you ever had a vegetable garden? They’re a lot of work at first, but if you plan carefully, a lot of the effort can be spread out over time and you end up having a much easier time of it in the end.

Once the garden is established that first season, the key is to plan ahead and start assessing what happened this past year: what went well? What was successful? What did you grow too much of, and what did you not grow enough of? Did you have all the tools you needed? For things that needed more than one person to complete, were you all coordinated, or were the lines of communication fuzzy? And how did this affect the final outcome?

And so you take this information, and you start planning for the next season. Too many green beans and barely enough potatoes. And perhaps you should have started some things sooner; better get a jump-start on ordering stuff for next season so it arrives in a timely fashion, rather than your going panic-shopping because you forgot. And so on.

Time passes and it’s time to start that garden again. You plant seeds and you water, and you fertilize, and you take care of stuff, and everything is great at first, until…

Destroyed from the inside…the Infestation.

It’s happened to me, a couple of times. The first time was the worst. Many years ago (mid-1980s), I planted a garden that included, on a lark, pumpkins. The pumpkins did fantastically early in the season. Then suddenly, they began to die. The die-off started at the ends of the vines and worked its way inward. After a few days of this mystery, I thought, “Maybe if I just cut off the dead stuff, it’ll encourage new growth.” So I worked my way along some dead vine until I found the point where it was still healthy, and I cut the vine. As it turns out, pumpkin vines are hollow tubes, so in my hands I had one healthy tube, and one—holy cow, look at all the borers inside there!

It’s some insidious stuff, let me tell you. An insect gets into your garden and somehow you didn’t count on it, which doesn’t make sense. Everything is OUT THERE, and what you’re trying to do is bring it in, take some slice of the world in with you and hold it close, get close to your earthly roots, bring order to chaos. But the world doesn’t play that way. It doesn’t know what your rules are, nor does it care.

The insect wants what it wants, and it doesn’t care about anyone else, because it’s an insect. And it’s amazing how much damage one insect can do to an entire garden. It can take the whole thing out and before you know it, your harvest is gone, just like that. More often than not, by the time you discover you’ve got something like that, it’s far too late.

So instead of eating your freshly-grown food which you created with your own two hands, you find yourself out somewhere, spending much more money than you would have in the first place, eating someone else’s work instead of your own. Despite all your work, despite your planning, despite everything, you don’t plan on an insect coming in and destroying everything. Because, really, you can’t plan on something like that. An insect’s actions are short-sighted, without consideration for the ramifications down the line and the effect that it’s going to have on the gardener—and everyone else who depends on that gardener to provide them with food.

And that’s just kind of sad.