The Universe of Discourse

Fri, 04 Jan 2008

Katara is not a vegetarian
I just had a long vacation and got to spend a lot of time with Katara, which is why she's popping up so much all of a sudden. I seem to have gotten into Mimi Smartypants mode. I will return to the regularly-scheduled discussions of programming and mathematics shortly. But since I seem to have written two articles in a row ([1] [2]) on the subject of telling kids the difficult truth, I thought I'd try to finish up this one, which has been mostly done for months now. Also there was a recent episode that got me thinking about it again.

I went to visit Katara at school last week, and stayed for lunch. I was seated with Katara and three other little girls. As the food was served, one of the girls, Riley, made some joke about how the food cart contained guinea pigs instead. This sort of joke is very funny to preschoolers.

My sense of humor is very close to a preschooler's, and I would have thought that this was funny if she had said that the food cart contained clocks, or nose hairs, or a speech in defense of the Corn Laws, or the Trans-Siberian Railroad, or fish-shaped solid waste. But she said guinea pigs, and instead of laughing, I mused aloud that I had never eaten a guinea pig.

Riley informed me that "You can't eat guinea pigs! They're animals, not food."

"Sure you can," I said. "Meat is made from animals."

Riley got this big grin on her face, the one that preschoolers get when they know that the adults are teasing them, and said "Nawww!"

"Yes," I said. "Meat comes from animals."

Riley shook her head. She knew I was joking. A general discussion ensued, with Katara taking my side, and another girl, Flora, taking Riley's. In the end, I did not convince them.

"Well," I said, mostly to myself, at the end, "you girls are in for a rude awakening someday."

Now, I know that not everyone is as direct as I am. And I know that not all non-vegetarians are as concerned as I am about the ethics of eating meat. But wow. I would have thought that someone would have explained to these girls where meat came from, just as a point of interest if nothing else. Or maybe they would have made the connection between chicken-the-food and chicken-the-farm-animal. I mean, they are constantly getting all these stories set on farms. Since three-year-olds ask about a billion questions a day. they must ask around a thousand questions a day about the farms, so how is it that the subject never came up?

Katara was accidentally exposed to a movie version of Charlotte's Web on an airplane, and the plot of Charlotte's Web is that Charlotte is trying to save Wilbur from being turned into smoked ham. Left to myself I wouldn't have exposed Katara to Charlotte's Web so soon—it is too long for her, for one thing—but my point here is that the world is full of reminders of the true nature of meat, and they can be hard to avoid. So I was very surprised when it turned out that these two age-mates of Katara's were so completely unaware of it.

Anyway, Katara has known from a very early age where meat comes from. Early in her meat-eating career, probably before she was two years old, I specifically explained it to her. I wanted to make sure that she understood that meat comes from animals. Because there are serious ethical issues involved when one eats animals, and I think they must be considered. We may choose to kill and destroy thinking beings to make food, but we should at least be aware that that is what is happening. I'm not sure I think it is evil, but I want to at least be aware of the possibility.

I have never been a vegetarian, but I want to try to face the ethical results of that choice head on, and not pretend that they are not there. I did not want Katara growing up to identify meat with sterile packages in the supermarket. Meat was once alive, moving around with its own agenda, and I think it is important to understand this.

So I made an effort to bring up the subject at home, and then one day when Katara was around twenty months old we went to a Chinese restaurant that has live fish in tanks at the front of the restaurant, and you can ask them to take one of these fish into the kitchen to be cooked for your dinner. Katara has loved to eat fish since she was a tiny baby.

We ordered a striped bass, and then I took Katara to look at the fish in the tanks. I explained to her that these fish swimming in the tanks were for people to eat, and that when we ordered our fish for dinner, a waiter came out and caught one of the fish in a net, took it back to the kitchen, and they killed it and were cooking it for us.

As I said, I had made the point before, but never so directly. We had never before seen the live animals that were turned into food for us. I really did not know how Katara would respond to this. Some people have a very strong negative response when they first learn that meat comes from animals, so negative that they never eat meat again. But I thought Katara should know the truth and make her own decision about how to respond.

Katara's response was to point at one of the striped bass and say "I want to eat that one."

Then she took me to each tank in turn, and told me me which kind of fish she wanted to eat and which ones she did not want to eat. (She favored the fish-looking fish, and rejected the crabs, shrimp, and eels.)

Then when the fish arrived on our table Katara asked if it had been swimming in the tank, and I said it had. "Yum yum," said Katara, and dug in.

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Tue, 18 Dec 2007

Strangest Asian knockoff yet
A few years ago Lorrie and I had brunch at the very trendy Philadelphia restaurant "Striped Bass". I guess it wasn't too impressive, because usually if the food is really good I will remember what I ate, even years later, and I do not. But the plates were awesome. They were round, with an octagonal depression in the center, a rainbow-colored pattern around the edge, garnished with pictures of ivy leaves.

Good plates have the name of the maker on the back. These were made by Villeroy & Boch. Some time later, we visited the Villeroy & Boch outlet in Woodbury, New York, and I found the pattern I wanted, "Pasadena". The cool circular plates from Striped Bass were only for sale to restaurants, but the standard ones were octagonal, which is also pretty cool. So I bought a set. (57% off list price! Whee!)

(The picture gets much bigger when you click it.)

They no longer make these plates. If you broke one, and wanted a replacement, you could buy one online for $43.99. Ouch! But there is another option, if you are not too fussy.

Many years after I bought my dishes, I was shopping in one of the big Asian grocery stores on Washington Avenue. They have a kitchenware aisle. I found this plate:

The real VB plate is made of porcelain. The Washington Avenue knockoff is made of plastic.

Of course I bought it. It is hilarious! And it only cost two dollars.

[ Addendum 20170131: A challenger appears! ]

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Fri, 13 Jul 2007

New York tourism
Anil Dash recently blogged about touristy stuff in New York that you should skip. I grew up in New York, so I know something about this.

Top of Anil's list: the Statue of Liberty. He advises taking the Staten Island Ferry instead. I couldn't agree more. The Statue is great, but it's just as great seen from a distance, and you get a superb view of it from the Ferry. The Ferry is cheap (Anil says it's free; it was fifty cents last time I took it) and the view of lower Manhattan is unbeatable.

Similarly, you should avoid the Circle Line, which is a boat trip all the way around Manhattan Island. That sounds good, but it takes all day and you spend a lot of it cruising the not-so-scenic Harlem River. The high point of the trip is the view of lower Manhattan and the harbor. You can get the best parts of the Circle Line trip by taking the Staten Island Ferry, which is much cheaper and omits the dull bits.

Ten years ago I would have said to skip the World Trade Center in favor of the Empire State Building. Well, so much for that suggestion.

Anil says to skip Katz's and the Carnegie Deli, that they're tourist traps. I've never been to Katz's. I would not have advised skipping the Carnegie. I have not been there since 1995, so my view may be out of date, and the place may have changed. But in 1995 I would have said that although it is indeed a tourist trap, the pastrami sandwich is superb nevertheless. At no time, however, would I have advised anyone to eat anything else from there. Get the sandwich and eat it in the comfort of your hotel room, perhaps. But quickly, before it gets cold.

Also in the "go there but only eat one thing" department is Junior's Restaurant, at (I think) Atlantic and De Kalb avenues in Brooklyn. Now here's the thing about Junior's: their cheesecake is justly famous. They guarantee it. It is not your usual guarantee. A typical guarantee would be that if you are not happy with the cheesecake, they will refund your money. That is not Junior's guarantee. No. Junior's guarantees your money back unless their cheesecake is the best you have ever eaten.

Lorrie and I once ordered a cheesecake from Junior's. They ship it overnight, packed in dry ice. Our order was delayed in transit; we called the next day to ask where it was. They apologized and immediately overnighted us a second cheesecake, free, with no further discussion. The next day the two cheesecakes arrived in the mail. Both of them were the best cheesecake I have ever eaten.

But I once went to have dinner at Junior's. This was a mistake. Their cheesecake is so stupendous, I thought, how could their other food possibly fail? As usual, the cheesecake was the best I have ever eaten. But dinner? Not so hot. Do go to Junior's. You don't even have to schlep out to Atlantic Avenue, since they have opened restaurants in Times Square and at Grand Central Station. Get the cheesecake. But eat dinner somewhere else.

Anil says not to eat in the goddamn Olive Garden, and of course he is right. What on earth is the point of going to New York, food capital of this half of the Earth, and eating in the goddamn Olive Garden? You could have done that in Dubuque or Tallahassee or whatever crappy Olive-Garden-loving burg you came from.

If you don't know where to eat in New York, here's my advice: Take the subway to 42nd street, get out, and walk to 9th Avenue. Choose a side of the street by coin flip. Walk north on 9th avenue. Make a note of every interesting-seeming restaurant you pass. After three blocks, you will have passed at least ten interesting-seeming restaurants. Walk back to the most interesting-seeming one and go in, or select one at random. I promise you will have a win, probably a big win. That stretch of 9th Avenue is a paradise of inexpensive but superb restaurants.

I have played the 9th Avenue game many times and it has never failed.

Speaking of "things to skip", I suggest skipping the giant Times Square New Year's Eve celebration, unless you are a pickpocket, in which case you should get there early. Instead, have dinner on 9th Avenue. As you pass each cross-street walking down 9th Avenue, you will be able to see the Times Square crowd two blocks east, and you can pause a moment to think how clever you are to not to be part of it; feeling smugly superior to the writhing mass of humanity is an authentically New York experience. Then have an awesome dinner on 9th Avenue, and take the subway home.

Anil's whole series is pretty good, and as a native New Yorker I found little to disagree with. But I think he may be a little misleading when he says "the natives are friendly and helpful." I would say not. Neither are they unfriendly or unhelpful. What they mostly are, in my experience, is brusque and in a hurry. They will not go out of their way to abuse, harass, or ridicule you; nor will they go out of their way to advise or assist you. The New Yorkers' outlook on the world is that they have important business to attend to, and so, presumably, do you, and everything will run smoothly as long as everyone just stays out of each others' way and attends to their own important business.

In Boston, people will take you personally. I was once thrown out of a liquor store in Boston for daring to ask for a bottle of rye in a manner that the proprietor found offensive. This would never happen in New York. New Yorkers don't have time to be offended by your stupid demands, and they will not throw you out, because they want your money, and if dealing with your stupid demands is what they have to do to get it, well, they will just deal with your stupid demands as quickly as possible. A New York liquor store owner is not in the business of getting offended, and he has more important things to do than to throw you out. He is in the business of taking your money, and if he throws you out, it is because you are getting in the way of his next customer and preventing him from taking his money. Most likely, if you ask for rye, the New York liquor store owner will take your money and give you the rye.

There is a story about Hitler and Goebbels having an argument, with Hitler arguing that the Jews were too inferior to pose any sort of threat, and Goebbels disputing with him, saying that Jews are devious and cunning. To prove his point, Goebbels takes Hitler to a Jewish-run hardware and sundries store and asks the proprietor for a left-handed teapot. The proprietor hesitates a moment, says "let me check in the back room," and returns carrying a teapot in his left hand. "Yes," he says, "I had just one left." As Goebbels and Hitler leave the shop with their left-handed teapot, Goebbels says "I told you the Jews were cunning." Hitler replies "What's so cunning about having one left?"

A Bostonian would have told those two assholes where they could stick their left-handed teapot. That Jew emigrated from Germany, and he did not go to Boston. He went to New York, as did his fifty devious cousins.

But I digress.

In some cities I have visited, there is no convention about which side of the subway stairs are for going up and which are for going down. People just go up whichever side they feel like. In New York, you always travel on the right-hand side of the stairs. Everyone does this, because everyone knows that if they don't they will just get in the way and hold everyone up, including themselves. They have no time for this disorganized nonsense in which people go up whatever side of the stairs suits them.

New Yorkers do not stop and stand in doorways. When New Yorkers need to open their umbrellas, they step aside, and do it out of the way.

New Yorkers are orderly queuers. Disorganized queuing just wastes everyone's time. You don't want to waste everyone's time, do you? So get in line and shut the hell up!

Here in Philadelphia, we waste a lot of time trying to flag down cabs that turn out to be full. New Yorkers would never tolerate such slack management. In New York, taxicabs have a lamp on top that is wired to the taximeter; it lights up when the taxi is empty. That is good business for drivers, for riders, for everyone. I like Philadelphia well enough to have lived here for seventeen years, but it's no New York, let me tell you.

Hong Kong, on the other hand, is a very satisfactory New York. A few years back I visited Hong Kong, food capital of the other half of the Earth, on business, and loved it there. Not least because of the food. The Cantonese are the best cooks in the world, cooks so gifted and brilliant that people all over the world line up on the weekends to eat Cantonese-style garbage, and then come back next weekend to eat it again, because Cantonese garbage, which they call dim sum, but if you think about it for a minute you will realize that dim sum is the week's leftovers, served up in a not-too-subtle disguise, dim sum is more delicious than other cuisines' delicacies. And Hong Kong has the best Cantonese food in the world.

People had warned me beforehand that the Hongkongians were known for being brusque and rude. And that is what I found. Several times in Hong Kong I called up someone or other to try to get something done, and the conversation went roughly like this: I would start my detailed explanation of what I wanted, and why, and the person on the other end of the phone would cut me off mid-sentence, saying something like "You need x; I do y. OK? OK! <click>" and that was the end of it.

As a New Yorker, I recognized immediately what was going on. Brusque, yes, but not rude. I knew that the person on the other end of the phone was thinking that their time was valuable, that I presumably considered my own time valuable, and that we would both be best served if each of us wasted as little of our valuable time as possible in idle chitchat. New Yorkers are just like that too. I gather some people are offended by this behavior, and want the person on the phone to be polite and friendly. I just want them to shut up and do the thing I want done, and in Hong Kong that is what I got.

So if you are a tourist in New York, please try to remember: New Yorkers may appear to be trying to get rid of you as quickly as they can, and if it seems that way, it is probably because they are trying to get rid of you as quickly as they can. But they are doing it because they are trying to help, because they have your best interests at heart. And also because they want to get rid of you as quickly as they can.

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Thu, 08 Feb 2007

Lorrie and I had fondue for dinner two nights ago. To make cheese fondue, you melt a lot of Swiss cheese into a cup of dry white wine, then serve hot and dunk chunks of bread into the melted cheese with long forks.

Lorrie was in charge of buying the ingredients. I did not read the label on the wine before I opened and tasted it, and so was startled to discover that it was a Riesling, which is very much not a dry wine, as is traditional. Riesling is is a very sweet and fruity wine.

I asked Lorrie how she chose the wine, and she said she had gotten Riesling because she prefers sweet wines. I remarked that dry wines are traditional for fondue. But it was what we had, and I made the fondue with it. Anyway, as Lorrie pointed out, fondue is often flavored with a dash of kirsch, which is a cherry liqueur, and not at all dry. I never have kirsch in the house, and usually use port or sherry instead. Since we were using Riesling, I left that stuff out.

The fondue was really outstanding, easily the most delicious fondue I've ever made. Using Riesling totally changed the character of the dish. The Riesling gave it a very rich and complex flavor. I'm going to use Riesling in the future too. Give it a try.


Rub the inside of a heavy saucepan with a cut garlic clove. Heat 1 cup Riesling over medium heat in the saucepan. When the surface of the wine is covered with fine bubbles, add 1 tablespoon corn starch and stir until dissolved. Reduce heat and slowly add 3/4 lb grated emmenthaler and 3/4 lb grated gruyere cheeses, stirring constantly until completely melted.

Transfer to a caquelon (fondue pot) and serve with chunks of crusty French bread and crisp apples.

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Thu, 23 Nov 2006

Damning with faint praise
If you have used evaporated milk, you may have noticed that the label says something like:

By adding one part water to one part of the contents of this can, a resulting milk product will be obtained which will not be below the legal standard for whole milk.

This sounds ghastly, doesn't it? "Will not be below the legal standard...". Shudder.

The purpose of this note is to let you know that:

  1. I have done this,
  2. more than once, and
  3. it not only wasn't as ghastly as it sounds,
  4. it wasn't ghastly at all.
Evaporated milk by itself does not taste much like milk. But if you dilute it back to normal concentrations by adding one part water, it tastes a lot more like milk. It still doesn't taste exactly like milk, but it tastes a lot more like milk than it does like anything else.

From the warning on the label, you would expect maybe a 30% resemblance to milk; in truth, the resemblance is more like 85%. That's close enough to drink plain, if you're not too fussy, and it's certainly close enough to pour over your cereal without noticing the difference.

The wording of the label scares people off, but it works quite well, well enough that it is probably worth keeping a couple of cans in the closet for emergencies, like when you run out of milk for your cereal at 2 AM after the store is closed.

This has been a public service announcement of the Universe of Discourse. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

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