Friday, March 25, 2011

My First Meal at Toro

I now know the first time I went to Toro was an important event in my food life. It happened after we'd been watching Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations for a season or so, and long after I read his essays collected in A Cook's Tour (still my favorite collection of food and travel writing). It was about the time Riss and I were thinking about getting a farm share and also, about the time I was learning about the importance of buying local. Along with all of that, I was also cooking more, being more creative with my cooking, and being less afraid of messing up while cooking. In short, the first time I went to Toro coincided with the transition of food from fuel, to an aspect of my culture. It was also, about the time we finally discovered restaurant week.

Toro is a Spanish style tapas restaurant in Boston's Southish end that happens to sit about fifty yards from a rather stark gentrification border. (Guess which side it's on.) In general, it's far too expensive for us to eat there, but Boston (and many other cities) has a “Restaurant Week” (which is really two weeks, but I'm not going to complain) in which restaurants offer a prix fix menu at an alarmingly reasonable price, a little over $30 per person for dinner and a little over $20 per person for lunch. Riss and I chose Toro because we decided to be adventurous with our Restaurant Week meal and Toro offered the most adventurous menu in the city that year.

Looking back on it, this could have been a make or break meal for us, because everything else followed from it. For example, in London we ate at a famous snout to tail restaurant called St. John's Bread and Wine, where Riss and I shared appetizers of calf's heart and bone marrow, I had pan fried calf's liver, and Riss had tongue, all with a side salad that had the best dressing I've ever consumed. (One way to tell a good restaurant; try what they're not famous for. If that's still good, it means they're committed to a good meal, not just a signature dish.) I also had woodcock in London, which tasted a like a slightly leaner, but no less delicious, duck. I've eaten oysters, I've had pho (which might be the world's perfect breakfast) with tripe and cartilage (though, at least at Les, I prefer the standard issue pho with beef round), and squid. On a trip to Chinatown, Riss and I picked out, pretty much at random, a few pastries to try. (Did not go well, but you can't win them all.) At Craigie on Main, a snout to tail restaurant in Cambridge (which mixes some killer cocktails as well) Riss and I got a half a pig's head peking duck style. (One of the best arguments for an anthro-centric deity organizing existence on the earth is the pig. I mean, even it's face is delicious.) And in our freezer now, along with farm share veggies, chili, sauce, and the more traditional cuts of meat we have liver, heart, and tongue (all bought from Jim, I might add).

I have to wonder what my relationship to food would be if that first meal at Toro had been a bad one. Would I have had the conviction to be adventurous again? Would I have gotten something interesting or something safe at the next restaurant I went to? What would I have dared to try in a foreign country? One of the things I've learned since that time is that, if you want to eat interesting meals, you're going to have to bad meals sometimes. Almost by definition, an interesting meal is going to taste bad to somebody, and every now and again, you're that somebody. Even if I knew that then, would I have believed it, if my first adventurous meal was also a bad meal? Obviously, it was not a bad meal.

It was one of, if not the, best meal of my life.

We had tapas dishes featuring heart, tongue, bone marrow, and pork belly. When we finished ordering the waiter was pleased. He said we'd ordered all the good stuff. There is a strange thrill in impressing a server at a nice restaurant; it's like acing a quiz.

I'm going to be honest, I generally find descriptions of the actual taste of food inadequate. Most writers pile approximations on top of each other, hoping accuracy accumulates from equivalents and all writers assume that “buttery,” or “velvety,” or “savory,” or any other taste word means the same thing to everyone. We have an agreed upon linguistic definition for all of those things, but there really is no way to know whether the experiences we actually have are shared in any meaningful way. (A universal problem highlighted by food writing in particular.)

So I won't try to transfer the taste of the pork belly to you, but I will say that with the first bite I had, I thought, “I have to slow down. I have to make this last. This is the best bite of anything I've ever had.” I won't throw comparisons around about the bone marrow in the vain hope that a phrase like, “light smooth salty beef flavored butter” will have any accurate meaning for anyone else. I'll just toss out there that the heart felt like dissolving velvet on the tongue. Because really the particular tastes weren't the important part of the meal. The important part was that I chose to eat adventurously and was rewarded with my first ever food high.

I think the term food high is pretty self-explanatory, but I'll add the term “glowing euphoria” just to make it clear. I'd been a relatively picky eater when I was younger. For the most part, one bad experience could set me off a particular food for years. I don't think I ate hamburger for a decade because I once got something weird in a hamburger. I think by the time of that first meal at Toro, I had outgrown a fair amount of that pickiness. But still, I have to wonder if I would have been brave enough to rebound from a first bad adventurous meal. But I have the luxury of only wondering. Now, Riss and I got to Toro once a year.

Friday, March 18, 2011

A Radical Suggestion for the Boston Bruins Power-Play

Right now, the Boston Bruins of the National Hockey League, are statistically the best 5-on-5 team in the league, and given that hockey is a 5-on-5 game, one would assume that the Bruins of Boston would be one of the best teams in the league. At 3rd in the Eastern Conference, first in the Northeast Division, and almost a lock to make the playoffs, they're doing alright. But. They've had their struggles. Two, three, and four game losing streaks. Stretches where they only get the overtime point. And they can't seem to beat Montreal (one likely first round playoff opponent) or Buffalo (another likely first round playoff opponent.) As statistically the best team, for the most common situation in the sport, you would think they would be dominant. But even though they're good, they're not as good as they could be, and I for one, and not assuming a Stanley Cup this year.

So, if they're the best 5-on-5 team in professional hockey, why aren't they the best team in professional hockey? Basically, their power-play sucks. It's not the worst in the league, but it is plenty bad enough to bring their overall game down. They can go weeks it seems without scoring a goal when they have five players on the ice and the other team only has four. Their biggest trade this season was for defenseman Thomas Kaberle, primarily to improve their power-play. They've rotated many players through the power-play units and they've tried different strategies, but nothing's worked. They grabbed a 5-on-3 goal last week, (and that was a relief) but I can't remember the last power-play goal before that.

In watching their power-play, all season, what might be the most frustrating, (head-coach Claude Julien must be going out of his mind) is that, as a power-play unit, it doesn't look that bad. Passes are usually crisp. Shots are pretty good. Rebounds are produced. Their entrances into the attacking zone could be better, but they're not atrocious. But, if they want to win the hands-down best trophy in sports, they'll need at least an average power-play to do it. So, here's my radical suggestions to improve the Boston Bruins power-play.

Don't run a power-play. That's right. Instead of two power-play units, roll the same lines used during even strength. Don't run any 5-on-4 specific plays. Don't do anything different from even strength. Dump and chase with an aggressive forecheck. If a defender backs off the half-wall, don't try to set up a diagonal cross-ice path; attack the net as you would if it were 5-on-5. Instead of high-low passing to set up a shot from the point with men in front, set up the low zone forwards cycle.

The different plays power-plays run are designed to take advantage of the extra man. The team on the power-play can take more risks, they can hold the puck longer to look for passing lanes, and they almost always have more room on the periphery to make passes. Power-plays are designed to take advantage of these, well, advantages.

But right now, the Bruins aren't. But they score more and allow fewer goals than any other team when playing 5-on-5. It stands to reason that if they play the same way when they are on the power-play, they'll start scoring more goals. Even if they don't, there's still time before the playoffs to try something else. It could act almost like a reset button, completely wiping clean whatever their power-play is now so they can get something more effective ready for the playoffs, whatever it may look like.

In a somewhat related vein, Jack Edwards says a lot of ridiculous stuff on the air, but he's right when he points out the inadequacy of the power-play statistics. Power-play and penalty kill statistics are calculated as basic percentages, with the higher the better. The problem is all power-plays and penalty kills count the same in the statistic. Killing a two-minute penalty counts the same in the calculation as killing a five-minute or a 30-second penalty. It's not an entirely useless statistic, but it really only gives a sense of a team's quality one way or the other.

My thought for a more accurate statistic: Goals per ten minutes. It's pretty simple, the amount of time killing penalties is added up, the amount of goals scored during that time, and, then reduce the fraction. The more G/10s (or something, ask Bill James) the worse the penalty kill and the better the power-play. It's a simplification that would, I think, reflect more of the complexities of the events it attempts to describe, which is what the best stats do. There. Two problems solved. What's next? Concussions? No way. That's an entire other essay.

Friday, March 11, 2011

On Borders Bankruptcy

I have mixed feelings about the Borders Bankruptcy. Or rather, I have many negative feelings about the Borders Bankruptcy.

First of all, Borders was a major player in the devaluation of the book. By using the greater volume of sales possible for a national chain, Borders generally sold their books at a price below that which would sustain the book industry itself. (And, of course, how much does a life-changing epiphany really cost, but, that's another essay.) They were part of a movement, along with Barnes and Noble and Amazon that actively devalued what they sold. Most businesses spend a lot of money to convince customers their product is valuable. Take cheap, watery, disgusting beer. Millions and millions (billions maybe?) of dollars are spent every year by big beer companies to convince potential customers that they're flavorless alcohol delivery systems are worth buying. Borders, et al., however, told customers, “Our books are cheaper and that's the only thing that matters.”

Lots of businesses make mistakes. Lots of businesses choose poor business models and, as a result have to declare bankruptcy. Innovation is only possible in the presence of failure, so there's nothing weird about this. I can have sympathy for businesses that try something new and fail. The thing is, though, Borders brought hundreds of independent bookstores, who had sustainable business models, down with them. Borders sold books that really, truly cost $25.00 to make everything work, for $15.00 or less. You can make something like work for a while if you're a big enough business, but in the end, you can't make a lasting living selling something for less than what it's worth.

But I'm not happy about this either. If I believed there were independent (sustainably priced) bookstores to benefit (and hire people as a result of) from the hundreds of Borders locations that are closing, that would be one thing, but most of those independent bookstores went out of business years ago. Which means that in most of these locations Borders was the only bookstore in the area. Which means that the business most likely to benefit from these closings is Amazon, perhaps the most destructive force for a substantial (and important) portion of the book world.

But another increase for Amazon's market share (which they already use to bully publishers for better discounts) isn't the only negative (though, the way Amazon operates is a pretty big negative) side effect of the Borders bankruptcy. Right now, Borders owes millions of dollars to most major publishers, and though there is no indication there will be a cascade of bankruptcies from this, it will still most likely mean that publishers will lose millions of dollars. (Just a side note. What would the bookstore world look like if publishers extended that kind of credit to everyone? How many indie bookstores were just one holiday season or one strong quarter or even one “Help us we're struggling” sale from getting back on track? Would there be wide swaths of the country now without a single bookstore? We'll never know, but you gotta wonder about extending millions of dollars in credit to anybody selling anything.) In an industry that is struggling to prove its value to the world, these kinds of losses could have a significant effect on publishing. One of the reasons why great works of literature get to the public, is that publishers have the resources to take risks on a books with more quality then profitability. Now, many publishers will have less resources to take those risks than they once did.

So to sum up on a bit of a downer, Borders was bad for books and Borders bankruptcy is bad for books. 

Hooray for the classic lose/lose. Now, on to some kind of action.

If you love books and your local Borders closed, the best thing to do is start shopping at a locally owned, sustainably priced, independent bookstore. There are a couple of ways to find one. You could go to this list or you could go to and use their store finder. Of course, as I mentioned earlier, the decades long decline of independent bookstores coupled with these Borders closings will leave whole swaths of the country without a bookstore within a reasonable driving distance. If you live in one of those places, instead of going to Amazon, go to Powell's or The Strand first. Both stores sell online and both have massive inventories, meaning you'll almost always find the book you're looking for at one or the other. They also both do used books, so you can find good deals if that is your thing.

Like pretty much everything else, the bankruptcy of Borders isn't just one thing; its recent changes in technology, long term shifts in American culture, and the particular decisions made by Borders. Prices at Amazon. Supermarkets selling Harry Potters at next to nothing. Erosion of book coverage in the media. Hopefully something positive will come from the Borders bankruptcy. Maybe publishers will become more assertive against Amazon. Maybe more book buyers will shop at indie bookstores. Maybe the book as objects sold in bookstores will continue to diminish and eventually be replaced by something else. It is far too early to tell, but as with all news making events, the Borders bankruptcy gives a chance to ask big questions. The question here: how important are books to society? And, since we're asking: what are you willing to pay to make sure there are books around for your grandchildren.

Friday, March 4, 2011

How to Watch Rugby

A couple of weeks ago, NBC broadcast a sporting event from Las Vegas, and though one could easily imagine all the possible sporting events NBC would broadcast from Las Vegas, it is unlikely that you'll imagine the right one. (Unless you bothered to read the title of this post, which, well, kind of gives it away.) It was an event in the Sevens World Series. “Sevens” is a variant of rugby in which seven, rather than fifteen players play on a side at the same time, which means that NBC was broadcasting rugby. I almost called in to work, but, luckily we have the wonder of DVR. 

It's always baffled me that rugby isn't more popular in this country. It has everything that's good about American football and everything that's good about soccer and none of the stupid stuff in either one of them. Grace and violence. Skill and strength. Knee socks and jerseys with collars. Practically perfect.

In a way it makes sense, though. It's actually fairly hard to learn how to watch a new sport. We don't really think of it, but most of us who watch sports learned to watch those sports in our childhoods. Whether we actively watched or not, we lived in families that had baseball, football, basketball, and/or hockey on all the time. These sports look natural and intuitive to us, because we grew up with them. We learned to watch baseball the same way we learned to speak English, and, in a lot of ways, watching a new sport is like learning a new language.

So, if you've never watched rugby before, here is a quick primer that can hopefully be applied to watching other sports foreign to you.

Focus on the Universals: Loving a sport is all about paying attention to the details, but when watching a new sport for the first time, focus on the universals. In rugby, players move a ball from one side of the field to the other, trying to get it across a line. (If that sounds familiar it is, as American football came from rugby.) Sure, there's tons of other stuff going on, but trying to figure out why that guy essentially just kicked the ball straight up in the air, will only frustrate you.

Focus on the athleticism: Part of the fun of watching sports is watching people do things that would give you a hernia or totally blow-out your knee and there's plenty of that in rugby. Sure there's a lot of strategy and sport specific skill, but there's also a whole lot of huge dudes running really fast and hitting each other really hard.

Listen to the announcer's volume: In contemporary sports coverage the announcers never shut up. For someone who's never watched rugby before, it's going to be a constant stream of, possibly British-accented, gibberish. But the volume of their voice will tell you when something exciting is happening. It doesn't particularly matter what, but it's important to know when you should be excited. If you can hear the crowd noise, they work as an indicator as well.

Root for the home team: Some emotional investment always makes sport more entertaining, and if you don't know anything about the teams, rooting for the home team will at least mean the crowd will help you know when to cheer and when to groan.

If you happen to be watching with someone who knows the sport wait until halftime to ask questions: I love helping people learn how to watch rugby. As a fan, I feel like an ambassador of the sport. And there is something fun about sharing something you know a lot about with somebody else. The problem though, is that there's always another level of background behind the answer to a question. For someone who doesn't have the basic assumptions of rugby, the question “Why did they just blow the whistle?” doesn't have a simple answer. You might have to know what a “ruck” is or what a “maul” is or how “off-sides” works on a kick. Just imagine you're watching American football with someone who's never seen the sport before and said individual asks you why the guy standing at the back of the line of the guys bending over just patted his helmet and started shouting. Sure you could start answering the question but by the time you've got the wide out checking down to a quick slant, five more plays have happened with all the questions they can generate. Waiting until halftime (which rugby has) means you have some time to go over the background. There's a break where nothing else is going on when you can follow a question through to a reasonable approximation of an answer, and follow tangents as they come up.

Every sport looks stupid when you don't know what's going on: Yes, in rugby there's a fair amount of shorts grabbing. Players have their ears taped. Every now and again, players line up and throw a teammate in the air. By his thighs. Without context it looks ridiculous. But just for a second, forget everything you know about baseball and watch a batter during an at-bat. Is that much adjustment necessary after every pitch? And what's that other guy doing that the batter looks at after every pitch? Again, it's like how foreign languages can sound silly when you don't know what the speakers are saying.

There's nothing wrong with loving one of (or all of) the four majors or remaining devoted to whatever sport you grew up with. But sport is one of the ways people, nations, and cultures express themselves, and watching foreign sports is one way to experience, at least a part of a foreign culture. And now with, you can watch rugby. And soccer. And lacrosse. And even cricket (which is totally worth it, just do laundry or something during the breaks), squash, volleyball, and more. Hopefully, you can apply the How to Watch Rugby principles to all of them well.