Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Tutorial: Ganache

It's time to talk about ganache.

According to Google, I've mentioned ganache a couple of times around here. I even gave a quick one-liner at some point on how to make it. As it turns out, there's a lot more to it than just a one line of instruction. Luckily for us, it's still a very simple recipe to put together. Since I'm all about culinary hacking, I decided to take this from a couple of different angles.

First of all, we need to talk about what ganache is. In a nutshell, a classic ganache is an emulsion of equal weights of chocolate and heavy cream. In truth, it doesn't quite need to be all that equal. A higher proportion of cream will make a thin ganache, while more chocolate will make a thick ganache. In my experience, both of these tend to be easier to break than a classic ganache. That means that the ingredients start to seperate from each other and really don't want to get back together. That doesn't mean that you can't get away with a thin or a thick ganache, it just means that you should probably start in the middle.

To start, you'll need to chop up some chocolate. I buy a good deal of my chocolate in ten pound blocks at specialty shops and restaurant supply stores, and then chop what I need when I need it. If you don't have such a supplier nearby, go ahead and go with chocolate chips. But do yourself a favor and check that ingredient list. A really good chocolate will only have cocoa solids, cocoa butter, sugar and sometimes something like lecithin as an emulsifier. If you see any kind of fat other than cocoa butter, put the bag back and look for something else. Also, you don't want to use milk chocolate. We're adding enough dairy as it is with the cream and if you use milk chocolate, it'll just be too much. Go with bittersweet, semisweet, or something else dark. Don't use baking chocolate though. The results will probably not be sweet enough.

If you're like me, you went with the ten pound block. It's cheaper per pound, and is likely to be of a higher quality. Set a corner of it on your cutting board and carefully cut away the chocolate in pieces. Smaller is better, and don't hack at it unless you want to ruin your knife. I have a special chocolate knife that I can use, but today I went with a regular old chef's knife.

I measured my chocolate using a kitchen scale, and you should too. Remember, ganache calls for equal weights of chocolate and heavy cream. I know what you're thinking, and yes, I weighed my cream too. I'm not going to give you exact measurements here, because it doesn't matter. Four ounces of each will work just as well as two pounds. Take your cream and put it on medium-high to high heat. I would recommend doing this after weighing out your chocolate, because it takes much less time for cream to boil than it does to chop enough chocolate for it, and the last thing you want to do is let your cream boil. What you want is a scald. That means that there are just little bubbles breaking around the edges of the cream. When this happens, you might want to stir or swish the cream around a little to make sure it's evenly heated.

Hopefully you've already put your chocolate into a metal bowl, in as flat a layer as possible. Pour your cream on top and let it sit for at least 30 seconds. A couple of minutes would be better. Don't stir anything, don't even shake the bowl. You need to allow time for the heat from the cream to move into the chocolate and melt it.

I hope you have your whisk ready, because now is the time to use it. But be careful! You don't want to incorporate any little air bubbles into your ganache. Whisk slowly, starting from the center. It's going to start off looking like chocolate milk that isn't quite mixed all the way, but keep going. Eventually, the chocolate and the cream in the center will join together in an emulsion, which will look a lot like melted chocolate.

When this happens, you can start moving the whisk out and incorporating more cream, little by little. Don't try to get the whole bowl at once, it just makes it harder for the emulsion to form. And please don't use an electric mixer for this! It's going to incorporate air, and it's not going to do anything to help the emulsion. Before long, you will have a beautiful bowl full of melted ganache.

In this state, the ganache can be poured over ice cream, cakes, anything you like. Let it cool halfway, and then feel free to pull out your electric mixer and give it the spurs, for the best whipped chocolate frosting you've ever had. Let it cool all the way, scoop into little balls, and then toss those little balls in dutched cocoa powder. These are what chocolate truffles originally were, called so because they resemble real truffles, the fungus that they dig up out of the ground in France and charge an arm and a leg for.

Now that you know how to make a classic ganache, let's up the ante a little. I think that those of you who read my posts on dairy percentages and the chocolate raspberry tart have an idea of where I'm going here. That's right, I'm going to hack together my own flavor of cream here. I'm going to go with equal weights of orange juice and butter, heated together on low until the butter is fully melted, and then brought to a scald. Then I'm going to pour that over a bowl of finely chopped chocolate that is equal in weight to the orange juice plus the butter. In other words, if I used four ounces of juice and four ounces of butter, then I'm going to use eight ounces of chocolate.

Go ahead and let it sit for a couple of minutes and then proceed as before, slowly working the center into an emulsion and then slowly working in the rest.

This is a quick and easy way to add a little flavor to your ganache. You don't have to use orange juice, of course. Any juice and some purees will work physically, which is not to say that you'll like the taste. Lime juice would certainly be a good addition, as would raspberry or cranberry. I'm not so sure you'd like what grapefruit brings to the party though, but you're more than welcome to try.

Of course, there is a more traditional way to infuse flavor, and I would be cheating you out of a proper education if I didn't mention it. Let's go back to our original ingredients, equal weights of chocolate and heavy cream. In this recipe, it will be important for you to know that I used four ounces of each, measured by weight. I also added a teaspoon of lavendar petals to the cream, and no more. Remember my folly with the honey lavender ice cream? Go easy on it, or you will be sorry.

Bring the cream to a simmer and then let it sit there for a moment. The longer you let it sit, the stronger the flavor infusion. I let mine sit for somewhere around thirty seconds before removing from the heat and letting it cool for a moment. Keep in mind that a simmer is just above a scald, and you want your cream no hotter than a scald. When you're ready, pour your cream through a strainer into the chocolate.

Let it hang out for a couple of minutes, and then whisk together as before. Wasn't that easy? Of course, you don't have to use lavender. You can use any herb or spice you want, dried or fresh (though you'll probably want to stick with dried). Each one will require different amounts, and different simmering times, so you may want to experiment. Try to use whole herbs and spices when possible. One of the goals of ganache is smoothness, and while powders may seem small to you, they may still be big enough to feel gritty on your tongue. In fact, anything larger than 20 micrometers will probably feel gritty, and even cocoa powder isn't always that small. Suffice it to say that you'll probably be much happier with whole spices. Feel free to toast them first though if you like.

Now you have three different takes on ganache. I made all three in less than half an hour, including chopping, weighing and whisking, so I don't think you should have too many difficulties with it yourself. Is this the last work on ganache? Absolutely not. Those of you who are wondering how well an orange lavender ganache would go over, you're not alone. Give it a shot and tell me what you think! Maybe a little freshly grated ginger would go well with that orange ganache too. Or maybe you could get wild and try using unsweetened baking chocolate, and add some honey to the lavender cream. I'm not sure what the math would be on that one, but you're welcome to give it a try. In fact, I encourage you to give it a try. Make up a practice batch tonight and try it on some ice cream. I don't think you'll be disappointed.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Simple Syrup

Simple syrup is one of those things that becomes more and more essential to understand as one ventures deeper into the baking world. It can be used to sweeten drinks, such as lemonade or iced tea. But more importantly, it can be used for things like adding moisture to a dry cake. In my time as a baker, I saw a lot of dry cakes. It wasn't that I or anyone else in the bakery was bad at cakes, the recipes we used were just dry in the first place. I think that this had its advantages. It seemed to me that the cakes had a little more structure, even after they were doused with simple syrup to make them moist as well.

Strictly speaking, simple syrup is as easy to make as its name suggests. Combine equal weights of sugar and water, and heat to dissolve. Wasn't that easy? You don't even need to boil the water, you just need to get the sugar to dissolve into it. You can then cool it and move to a squeeze bottle for later use. What kinds of uses? Well, I think one of the simplest would be to combine the juice of a few lemons or limes with some water, and then add simple syrup to taste. I think I usually do somewhere around six limes with a quart or two of water and about a cup or so of simple syrup. Tastes are subjective, and I'm sure your mileage will vary.

Of course, equal weights is not the rule. It may be what they teach in cooking school, but it's really only a guideline. Many people go by volume, rather than weight. When I make limeade, I frequently use a cup of water and a cup of sugar. The more sugar you use, the more viscous the syrup will be. The less sugar you use, the thinner the syrup will be. Of course, there's a big key here: the liquid that you use doesn't have to be water.

I remember one of my first days in a professional bakery, I had to build several tiramisus for a party that night. One of the ingredients I was instructed to use was part dark rum and part coffee symple syrup. Coffee simple syrup? Easy. I ended up using equal weights hot coffee and sugar. Since the coffee was already hot, all I had to do was stir. Then I mixed with some dark rum and started dousing the cake. We cheated and used cake instead of lady fingers, but you get the idea.

In the time since then, I've made a variety of simple syrups, using anything from plain old water to things like coffee or orange juice. You'd be surprised by the things that you can use simple syrup for. For instance, you might find yourself keeping raspberry simple syrup (equal parts strained raspberry puree and sugar) around just in case you want to make iced tea. The possibilities are nearly endless. The important thing right now is to understand what simple syrup is, and how one can make it. It won't be long before you start discovering various ways to use it.

Saturday, December 23, 2006


The first time Alton Brown referred to a regular old egg as a "chicken egg", I must say I was amused by it. I was so amused in fact, that I began referring to them the same way myself. I remember the first time I did so on the Good Eats Fan Page Message Board, somebody noted that they had been wondering why Alton Brown specified a chicken egg, and why I did so too. At the time, I think I joked that I wanted to make sure people didn't think I was referring to a quail egg. By that point I had had some small experience with them myself, and I argued jokingly that I wasn't the only one.

Today when I investigated a small spike in my stats, I found a story on Digg that was similar to my post on chocolate chip cookies. One person linked to my article in the comments, and somebody else joked about me using chicken eggs. When I read that, I decided that it was time to write a little bit about one of my favorite ingredients: the chicken egg.

Unless a recipe with eggs specifies otherwise, it probably calls for large chicken eggs. In most supermarkets that I have been in, I have also seen "extra large", "medium" and sometimes "small". While my focus is going to be on large eggs, let me give you the breakdown on egg sizing, according to my notes from bakeshop in cooking school:

Jumbo 30 oz per dozen (by weight)
Extra Large 27 oz per dozen (by weight)
Large 24 oz per dozen (by weight)
Medium 21 oz per dozen (by weight)
Small 18 oz per dozen (by weight)
Pee Wee 15 oz per dozen (by weight)

That means that the large egg averages about 2 oz. Of that 2 oz, approximately 1 oz is egg white, 2/3 oz is yolk, and the rest of it is shell. Now before you bread out your scales and start trying to prove anything, let me remind you of a few things. First of all, these are approximations and averages. Every egg is different, and every egg producer is different. When I buy my eggs at CostCo, they tend to all be pretty much the same size. When I buy my eggs from my favorite supermarket, they tend to differ radically in size, but I have little doubt that one dozen of them weighs about 24 oz. Obviously, since I prefer a little more consistency in my cooking, I try to buy my eggs from CostCo when possible.

Speaking of their eggs, something else important to note is that while they are cheaper and more consistently sized, theirs tend to be a brown color, while the norm at my supermarket is white. You can buy brown at my supermarket, but at a premium. When I lived in New Hampshire, brown seemed to be the norm. Obviously, this is a very regional thing. As far as I know (and I don't believe anyone has definitively proven otherwise), there is absolutely no difference between the contents of brown vs white eggs. They taste the same to me, and as I'm sure you've guessed, I pay a lot of attention to things like taste. But I have noticed that the brown eggs that I used seem to have a sturdier shell. And since I tend to use these a lot, I've gotten used to how they crack. The white eggs feel funny to me now when I crack them, because the shell is so thin in comparison. But I can't say that this is always the case.

Something else that I noticed in New Hampshire was that all of the eggs were "Grade A". When I mentioned this to my friends out there, they all gave me kind of a "well, duh" response. Of course they were Grade A. It's not like they'd be selling Grade B, and what's this Grade AA thing that I keep talking about? Well, I seem to have the upper hand on this one, since I have never seen anything lower than Grade AA sold in Utah. This baffles me because I have also never seen an egg farm in Utah (though I know they're here), and I drove by one on the way to school in New Hampshire. Obviously it's not a question of distance.

What is the difference between the different grades? That's a good question, and one with many answers. An egg that is Graded AA is pretty fresh. The way to keep an egg fresh is to store it at the right tempurature, ideally 36F. If you can manage to store your eggs at exactly this tempurature, they will last for a good five weeks. During this time, they will gradually drop from Grade AA to Grade A to Grade B. Any of these grades is perfectly edible, but at five weeks, you probably want to toss any that are left. As the eggs age and pass through these grades, they will undergo several physical changes. For instance, eggs have an air gap. At Grade AA, that gap will be about 1/8-inch. As it drops to Grade A, that gap will increase to about 3/16-inch. By the time it hits Grade B, that gap will have increased to somewhere around 3/8-inch.

During this time, the yolk will also begin to steal a little moisture from the white. This is very valuable knowledge for a couple of reasons. Once you have cracked an egg, you can tell roughly what grade an egg is after a little practice. If you crack the egg onto a level surface, you can look at how high the yolk and white is. A Grade AA egg will have a very firm yolk and white, causing it to stand pretty tall. As the yolk leeches moisture from the white, the structural integrity of both will decrease, and the egg won't stand as tall.

This means something else important. The higher the grade of the egg, the easier it is to seperate, because both the yolk and the white have a lot of structural integrity. But this also means that the older the egg is, the easier it is to mix into things. Because of this, Grade B eggs are actually eaiser for bakers to use. This is not to say that your local bakery is using Grade B eggs, but they might be. If they are, I wouldn't worry. If they decide to drop below that, I would.

Eggs serve a lot of purposes in cooking. For instance, while the white is mostly water, the rest of it is a protein called albumin. This protein can be whipped, which is a topic for a whole other post. It is also used sometimes in stocks and broths to clarify the liquid, and is in fact a key component in making a very clear and flavorful soup called consomme for this very reason. The yolk contains fat, water, protein and a small amount of cholesterol. The jury is still out on how healthful the yolk really is, but it does have its culinary uses. One very handy application is as an emulsifier. In a nutshell, emulsification is a process which helps force a stable mixture of two substances that would normally repel each other. Without this power, mayonnaise would be a very difficult recipe to put together.

Since an egg contains somewhere about 73% water, it can also bring a good bit of moisture to the party. Because of the emulsification power of the yolk and the structural power of the white, things like custards are made possible. Custards generally contain at least one egg, some kind of dairy (for additional moisture and/or protein), and a certain amount of fat (usually butterfat). This ranges from stirred custards (such as lemon curd) to baked custards (such as cheesecake).

Eggs also offer a lot of flavor. While I don't generally like eating eggs on their own, I can't deny that I love a lot of breads that are enriched with eggs. Does challah need to have all those eggs for structure? I doubt it. But they do add an excellent flavor that really defines the bread. Speaking of challah, I have never seen a recipe for it that doesn't call for an egg wash before baking. While the dough itself doesn't need any help with color, the egg wash does deepen the color even more, often making it a little brighter and always adding that characteristic shine.

This eggwash is applied to a lot of baked goods for a lot of other reasons too. I have baked many a pie using an egg wash to help it hold onto a generous sprinkling of coarse sugar. Protein is nature's glue, and eggs have plenty of it. Egg washes are also used by some bakers to stick pieces of dough together, for various artistic effects. While I'm at it, I might as well touch on the fact that since the yolk contains some fat, it can also be used for some shortening of gluten strands, though I'm sure much of the water in the eggs helps out with the formation of gluten enough to cancel that out a little. And of course, since egg whites can be whipped, they can be used for leavening.

So that's a nice little overview of eggs for those of you who are interested. If you really want to get into all sorts of nifty historical and scientific facts about eggs, I recommend On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee for additional reading.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Chocolate Raspberry Tart

I wasn't about to waste those tart shells that I made, even if the sides were a little short. I decided to sally forth and use them for my tarts anyway. Fortunately, this is a recipe that I have used several times, always with success. This is probably because I copied it out of a book some years ago, but don't worry; we'll be changing it anyway. The ingredients:

one 10-inch tart shell
3 oz butter
3 oz raspberry puree
6 oz whole milk
8 oz chocolate
1 whole chicken egg

This is actually the changed recipe. Remember my post about dairy percentages? This is a perfect example of the application of that knowledge. The butter and the raspberry puree have replaced heavy cream in the original recipe. When I looked at the original chocolate tart recipe, I thought it was kind of boring. Chocolate is nice and all, but it can be kind of boring by itself. And how can one call it a tart if it's not actually tart? Well, raspberries are tart. I've replaced the cream with equal parts butter and water-type liquid, namely, the raspberry puree.

The procedure is relatively simple. Melt your chocolate and butter in a double boiler, and then add the milk and raspberry puree. Remove from the heat and whisk slowly to combine, just like you were making ganache. Be careful not to incorporate any air bubbles. About this point in time you'll want to add in the egg, and whisk it in thoroughly. If you want, you can strain the mixture, but I don't bother.

At this point, you can go ahead and pour it into the tart shell. Be sure to use an actual tart pan for this, with short sides. It's not going to quite work out well if it's too thick. It'll be good as it is, but why don't I share a little pastry chef trick with you? You'll want some melted white chocolate for this part, and something to pipe it with. Go ahead and pour your melted chocolate into a small ziplock bag and snip a little piece of the corner off. Just a little piece, mind you. You'll be using this to pipe a little spiral onto your tart.

Come to think of it, you will also need a toothpick. After you've piped your spiral, go ahead and drag your toothpick through it, from 12 o'clock to 6 o'clock, then from 9 o'clock to 3'clock, and so on.

With your little spiderweb in place, it's time to bake our tart. What's that? Did I hear somebody on the back row say something about custard? That's right, this is a baked custard! That's what that chicken egg does for us, it gives us just the right proteins to firm up the rest of the filling once it's baked and cooled. Speaking of baking, you'll want to bake this thing at 375F for about 15 minutes. Just like with cheesecake or other baked custards, you'll want to pull it when the center is just barely wobbly. Let it cool for half an hour on the counter before refrigerating for a few hours.

You'll want to be careful when cutting this thing. It's pretty intense stuff. In fact, I wouldn't cut it into any fewer than 12 pieces. You may also want to wait until it's time to serve before cutting it, so that you can show off your spiderweb pattern in the middle. Make sure to make this at least a day in advance so that it'll have time to set up, and your tart will be the belle of the ball.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Tackling Galette Dough

It's been a while since I've tackled galette dough, and I've been itching to get into the kitchen and play with it again. With the season as it is, I hadn't had the chance until this weekend.

Most people (at least, most Americans) have never heard of galettes, so I'd better take a moment to clue you in. A galette is a type of pie that is cooked without a pie tin. That's not to say that it's a pouch type of pie, if that's what you're thinking. Imagine this: you have a bit of pie dough that you roll out into a flat, more or less round shape. You trim off any really extraneous edges, drop a pile of pie filling into the center, and then fold one edge in. Fold another edge in. Go around the pie, folding in edges, maybe a dozen times or so, give or take, until all of the edges are folded in and you have a nice little window of filling in the center. Bake it as you would any other pie, except on a parchment-covered sheet pan instead of a pie tin. That, my friends, is a galette. In fact, I have heard that in France, any type of free-form pie is called a galette. For those of you who saw the groundbreaking Good Eats episode The Crust Never Sleeps, this is the type of pie that Alton Brown makes at the end of the episode.

The great thing about galette dough is that it can be used to make regular pies too. I decided that I needed to come up with my own galette dough recipe. I hit Google and started looking at recipes out there, and compared them with recipes that I already had. Finally I calculated a recipe that seemed like a good average. The ingredients:

2 1/2 cups cake flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 Tablespoons sugar
1 cup cold butter
5 oz ice water


Before I get any further in my story, I think I should make this perfectly clear. This was a test recipe, and if you read the rest of my story, you'll see why I don't recommend it.

Pie dough can be tricky to make. It's a short dough, which you may recall from my post on sugar cookies. One of the biggest goals here is to make as little gluten as possible. This means working the dough very little. You also want to try and keep the butter as cold as possible. Back in the day, bakers would cut their butter into little cubes, and then (after whisking the salt and sugar into the flour and sifting it) try to work it into the flour using as few moves as possible. This is called "cutting in the fat". Many moden bakers use a food processor or even the paddle attachment on their mixer to cut in the fat, and in a perfect world, this would be my preference. Sadly, I own neither a big enough food processor nor a stand mixer. And the last time I cut in the fat by hand, my dough was much too chewy.

I decided to try a different tactic. I pulled out my cheese grater and grated up my cup of cold butter. For those of you taking notes, this is what's known as "an act of desperation". But hey, it seemed to work. I tossed the grated up butter in the flour, give it a couple of stirs with a wooden spoon, and then checked it. Believe it or not, it was just about perfect. Unfortunately, there was a lot of butter stuck to my cheese grater. I left it, and later I would use the same grater on a potato that became hash browns. The butter mixed in with the potato, and I got sauteed, buttery, potatoey goodness. That's right kids, no waste!

Back to the pie dough. When you have the fat cut in, it's time to add the moisture. In an effort to keep the fat cold, the moisture must be in the form of ice water. Or must it? As far as I can tell, it only needs to be a water-type substance. Following in Alton Brown's footprints, I went with ice-cold apple juice. But I didn't use a spray bottle like he did. I sprinkled in a little, gave the dough a little mix, and repeated until the liquid was all used up and the dough was more or less holding together, if still a little crumbly. This crumbly mess was wrapped in plastic wrap and moved into the refrigerator for at least an hour.

When the dough came out, the flour was more or less hydrated. I cut it in half, intending to use it for two pie shells. I thought I'd be clever and roll out my dough between two sheets of parchment, instead of flouring my rolling surface. It wasn't long before I realized that this was a Bad Idea (TM). First of all, my dough was very sticky. Perhaps just a little too sticky. I was beginning to realize why so many recipes were calling for 1/3 to 1/2 cup water, rather than the 5 oz that I used. In my defense, one of my recipes did call for that much, and I thought I'd give it a try. But truth be told, I think even if the dough wasn't that sticky, the whole parchment thing was probably just a bad idea.

When you roll out dough, you want to sprinkle your surface with cake flour, if possible, as I did with my second pie shell. Cake flour has the least amount of protein and remember, we're going for as little gluten as possible. Form your dough into a more or less flat, round shape with your hands, before actually rolling it. Sprinkly the dough, the surface, and even the rolling pin with cake flour. Give your dough a couple of rolls, and then turn it 90 degrees. Roll it a couple more times, and then turn it 45 degrees. Roll it a couple more times and then turn it 90 degrees. I have found this to be the best tactic for getting your dough to be more round than misshappen. It also helps to flip your dough over on occassion as you do this.

When you've got your dough rolled out, carefully move it over your pie tin, and work from the bottom up. Flatten out the bottom of the tin, then work the dough into the edges, and then up the side. You can either crimp your dough on the top, or you can cut it away. Personally, I prefer to cut it away.

Out of all the galette dough recipes I looked at, not a single one gave baking instructions. And why would they? The idea that most of those authors had in mind was that the pie recipe that you used would have its own baking instructions. What none of them kept in mind was blind baking. What is this thing I speak of? Blind baking is when you partially bake your pie dough before you fill it with anything. This keeps you from having a fully-cooked filling and an undercooked crust.

The problem with blind baking is when the crust starts to puff up. In order to avoid this, you can buy a relatively expensive set of beads that you use to line to bottom of your pie crust, then blind bake the crust, and then remove the beads. Or you can do what the professionals do and line the crust with parchment, fill it with dry beans, and then bake it. Let's review: $20+ to be an amateur, or less than a buck to act like a pro. Your call.

What tempurature? I went with 375F for about 10 minutes. The dough should look about half-baked. If it looks all nice and golden, brown and delicious, well, it's probably going to look burned when you actually bake a pie in it.

I'll be honest with you. This stuff shrank on me. It wouldn't have been so bad, except that I was using fluted tart pans, which have much shorter sides. The dough ended up shrinking so much, I only had about half the height left, which doesn't work so well for filled tarts. This is largely due to the fact that too much gluten had formed. It may have been the excess liquid. It may have been because I didn't have enough fat worked in, or because I didn't work it in properly. It may have been that my dough just needed to rest before I blind baked it. Whatever the cause, my galette dough needs some reworking.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Expensive Restaurants

This morning on the way to work, I was listening to my favorite station, and the morning team people were talking about expensive restaurants. They mentioned something that I think about a lot. A lot of people seem to have the misconception that price is directly related to quality. If a restaurant is expensive, then obviously it must be good. And the pricier it is, the higher the quality. Sadly, all too often the restaurant staff takes this to an extreme, mistakenly believing that there is a minimum requirement for the quality of customer that should be allowed into their high-quality restaurant.

A good example of this was mentioned in Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl. A particular restaurant had been continously voted the most romantic place to eat in New York City by a variety of publications, including the world-famous Zagat guide. How this place managed to receive any such ranking is beyond me. It had a fixed-price menu, meaning you paid the same no matter what you ordered. In this case, the price was $86/person. Some people would save for months to go there for a romantic meal, and when it was served, they deluded themselves into believing that the food and the service were fabulous, even though both would easily be surpassed by Micky's on a bad day. Why would they do this? Well, would you want to tell your friends the next day (or even yourself) that you had just paid close to $200 for a meal for two people that was complete and utter crap? Perhaps Tim and Nina Zagat were too embarassed to let it be known that they had bothered with a place so awful, so instead they named it "Most Romantic". Unfortunately, price did not equal quality.

price > quality

As you know from my own restaurant reviews, I don't like to pull my punches. If I believe a place did poorly, I will say so. If I believe a restaurant did a good job, I don't mind telling you that either, even if it's contrary to my expectations. Some say I've become a food snob. Would such a snob have eaten a microwave Aussie Pie for breakfast this morning? I think not. They would have been shocked at the very notion, while in contrast, I'm hoping CostCo gets more in stock soon. Them's some good pie.

What I am snobbish about is quality. Having spent a good deal of time with chefs, I know good quality food when I see, and taste it. Having spent time both as a member of the wait staff and a customer being waited on, I tend to pick up a lot about good service too. And as a computer geek with obsessive compulsive tendencies, I have high expectations. I remember reading in a book about Charlie Trotter, how a member of his wait staff got a job else where, tried to apply the same type of quality to their service there that there were used to from Trotter's, and was told something to the effect of, "we can't all be Charlie Trotter."

Why can't we? Sure, Trotter is an amazing chef. The man is world famous, and from what I've heard and read, for good reason. He has high expectations of not only himself, but everyone who works with him. His goal in life seems to be to make his guests feel, if only for a few short hours, as if they were royalty. I can see him in my mind's eye, analyzing a perfect dish, trying to figure out how to make it just that much better. This is easier to imagine when in the vision, he is a young chef, trying to make his way in the culinary world. When I imagine him as he is now, I can he him putting together a dish that makes the other one look like a tofu burger, with the ease of a man with years of experience, and the accuracy of a jeweler.

He didn't get to be the most respected chef in Chicago by deciding when things were good enough. He got there by figuring out how to make things better, including himself. His restaurant charges well over $100 for a meal, and a meal for two including wine, tax and tip can leave a couple close to $500 poorer at the end of the night, but with no regret as to the meal. Yes, his restaurant is expensive. And the quality is high. In this case, price did equal quality.

price == quality

Of course, what I've been hinting at here is that price does not have to equal quality in order for you to have a good meal. I remember dining at the Mesa Grill in Las Vegas. To be honest, I wasn't expecting much from good old Bobby. I expected a decent meal, but not much more than I could just make myself at home. By this point I was so jaded with Vegas, that I expected to (just barely) be able to afford an appetizer or two for my wife and I, and be served it by some clown who couldn't care less about us. What I ended up getting was a fabulous meal that left me in awe, served by a staff who was excited both to be working for Bobby, and to be serving me. The prices were only slightly higher than, say, Chile's, but the quality of the food was above and beyond anything that Chile's could ever imagine. Bobby wasn't basing his dishes on the latest trend, like lime chicken with under-ripe tomato concassé. His dishes were based on what he liked, on what he knew was good, and what he knew his guests would like. His servers were excited to be working with him, and even though I was just some schmo wandering through the casino at lunchtime, wearing jeans and a t-shirt from Oingo Boingo's farewell tour 12 years ago, he was excited to be serving me. In this instance, the quality far surpassed the price.

price < quality

What have I been basing quality on? In this article, there were only two factors: food and service. I suppose there are other areas that would factor into the quality equation for restaurants, such as cleanliness and environment. In truth, even if I knew the man in the kitchen was Paul Bocuse himself, if there was dust on the floor and a cockroach skittering by, we would be out of there like a bat out of Texas. Fortunately, Bocuse has higher standards than that, and so should you. I don't care how much the place costs. If either the food or the service is substandard, it's probably not worth sticking around, and it's definitely not worth coming back.

I remember back in cooking school, when I was hired to wash dishes for a popular chain of steakhouses. I never ate in the front of the house, but we were entitled to one free meal per shift, plus we were allowed to drink as much as we wanted from the soda fountain. The line cooks knew who the food was for, and they knew we wouldn't be writing up a New York Times review anytime soon. Nevertheless, the food was excellent. You could also tell the good waiters from the bad ones, largely because the good ones (which did comprise the majority of the wait staff) always had smiles on their faces, and were always willing to do what needed to be done. One in particular even volunteered to help in the dish room one night after closing, because he could see that we were overloaded.

One of my fellow dishwashers had just enrolled at the same school as me. I thought he was pretty cool, because he looked like Richard Attenborough's character in The Great Escape. I soon developed a dislike for him, and not just because he turned out to be a stoner. He liked to cut corners, but he wasn't very good at it. His apathy caused us to send dishes through the dish machine up to three or four times in a row, because he thought that rinsing them first (as we were instructed to by the chef) wasted time. He never realized that when I was the one loading the machine (and therefore rinsing the dishes), we tended to spend most of our time waiting for the waiters to drop off dishes, while when he was the one loading the maching (and therefore not rinsing the dishes), we were always at least a half hour behind.

When I first started that job, I had applied to be a line cook. I was told that they had no current need for inexperienced line cooks, but that they always needed dish washers. I was also told that they may use me from time to time as a cook, if I was needed. I expressed so much enthusiasm when they had me do prep work, and complained so little when I was in the dish room, that I ended up spending about 2/3 of my time there as a prep cook. One day I asked my Attenborough-like coworker why he didn't ask the chef to let him do prep work too, since he was in cooking school and could use the experience.

I remember him telling me that when he graduated, he planned to work in high-end restaurants like the French Laundry, not crappy chain restaurants such as the steak chain we were currently at. He spent a good couple of minutes explaining this to me. I told him that that was perfectly reasonably, and he should want to work in high-end restaurants. But, I asked him, would he rather appy for his job at the French Laundry with a year experience as a prep cook at a crappy chain restaurant, or with a year of experience as a dish washer at a crappy chain restaurant? He seemed dubious, so I asked him if he'd rather spend his part-time job arm-deep in dish water, or chopping vegetables in a relaxed area of the kitchen. Half an hour later, I saw him talking to the head cook, expressing interest in doing some prep work if the opportunity ever arose.

I'd be surprised if he ever got hired at the French Laundry. I'd almost be surprised to see him hired at any place more respected than Chile's. If I was managing Micky's, I wouldn't hire him. He wasn't willing to think ahead, to try and figure out what the most effective plan of action was. It was all about him. To him, a job was a job, not a learning experience. Quality was not important to him. His paycheck, and how much dope he could buy with it, were important to him. Being able to tell his friends that he worked at a nice place was more important to him than making the play he was already at nice.

Quality is important. I would have no problem eating at that restaurant, because I knew that most of the staff were good, I knew that the food was well-made, and I knew that the prices were decent. To me, this is quality. The talking tree at the entrance was a gimmick. It didn't make one bit of difference to me whether or not there was an animatronic owl hovering over our table (did I mention this place was filled with faux-Canadian animatronics?). The prices were reasonably, and more importantly, the quality was good.

Monday, December 11, 2006


I've always wanted to try this recipe, ever since watching chef Pascal Pinaud create a sculpture out of it when I was in cooking school. It's been a few years since I saw that demo, and while the recipe looked simple, I guess I was still expecting some difficulty. As it turns out, I had nothing to fear but the Frenchman himself. You need only four ingredients:

9 oz sliced almonds
9 oz granulated sugar
9 oz glucose or corn syrup
3 oz water

The procedure is just as simple. Put the sugar, glucose and water in a heavy-bottomed pan and bring to a boil. Do not agitate the pan. Eventually the water will boil away, and steam will stop rising from the boiling mixture. Continue to boil until the sugar turns a medium-amber color, and then kill the heat. Stir in the almonds.

Pretty easy stuff, isn't it? You don't even have to use a thermometer! And that's good, because the recipe I have doesn't even have tempuratures listed. Don't worry, this isn't so much a matter of tempurature as it is a matter of color. There is one problem, though. I know this looks like a brittle, and it even tastes like a brittle, but there is a difference. Brittle is a little more, well, pourable. You can't exactly pour this stuff. But you can use the spoon to scoop it out onto a greased sheet pan, or even a sheet pan covered with Silpat.

This stuff isn't going to get flat on its own, and believe me, you don't want to be munching on it when it's one big, hard ball of sugar and almonds. So go ahead and grab a rolling pin. This is one of the few times I break out my marble rolling pin, but I'm sure wooden will be just fine. Either way, you will want to grease the pin lightly. Go ahead and roll it out as thing as you like, but try not to make it any thicker than 1/4-inch.

When you've got it all nice and rolled out, go ahead and let it cool. Well, unless you want to sculpt it, that is. This stuff is pretty bendy when it's warm. It's also pretty easy to cut. If almonds weren't so expensive, you could build a nougatine house instead of a gingerbread house. Since we're probably going to be eating this instead, go ahead and let it cool, and then break into pieces.

Go ahead, have a bite. It's kind of buttery, isn't it? And you didn't have to use butter to achieve that. It's all almond fat that you're tasting. Delicious almonds and sugar, ready for your next holiday party.

Links and New Wallpaper

While I was in Phoenix, I saw a poinsettia Christmas tree outside at the Biltmore Fashion Park and I knew I had to take some photos. I even made sure to get one that could easily be used as wallpaper. Look at me being all festive! It's posted in the nature wallpaper area.

I also found a couple of interesting links in my stats that I thought I'd share. One is called Cheww, and it looks to be a food version of Digg. I'm not just recommending it because they linked to one of my articles. It actually looks like a pretty good site, if you're into food at all. I've already started checking it on a regular basis.

I also found a pretty new blog called Open Computing. When I first ran across them, they only had one post, and it was the standard "hey, look at my blog!" type of thing. The thing that caught my eye was that they linked to me as an "Open Link". And when I saw that they attempted the Ubuntu Cookies, I knew I had to share them. This is not really a cooking site, though. It's actually a set of open source tutorials, kind of like what Christer Edwards' blog has become. Make sure to check them out.

And yes, I've had this happen to me at cooking school too.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Garlic and Sapphires

I remember the first time I'd heard of Ruth Reichl. I was still in an early phase of my infatuation with food and cooking. I was working from home, a mix of telecommuting for one company and contract work for others. I would spend the day watching Food Network, listening to music and switching between my Linux and Windows terminals. One of my favorite shows was called Cooking Live, and it featured chef Sarah Moulton. She was friendly, cute, and a good cook. I imagine she still is. As I began to research the chefs that I was watching, I discovered that Sarah was the executive chef at Gourmet Magazine. It wasn't long before I had a subscription, and when I excitedly opened my first issue, I was greeted with that month's message from the editor: some Ruth Reichl lady. Not my beloved Sarah Moulton, who's name I eventually found buried in the colophon. That was several years ago.

I also remember the first time I saw Garlic and Sapphires at the book store. My wife and I were visiting friends in Idaho Falls a few months ago, and we decided to head over to the mall. By that time, I was well aware of who Ruth was, and I looked forward to reading anything by her. Unfortunately, I ended up buying a cook book instead, which I have scarcely looked through since.

I spent this past week in Phoenix, and when I wasn't in class, I was generally cramming for the certification exam at the end of the conference. During our lunch break on the last day, I decided I needed to take a break. I walked over to the mall adjacent to the hotel and made my way to the bookstore and following a brief glance over the tech section, I made my way to the cooking section. I needed something that I could read on the plane, something that told stories instead of giving me more procedures and instructions. Suddenly I saw it again: Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl. When I walked back into the classroom, I had one book in tow, waiting for me to finish the conference and start reading it. With the exam behind me, I walked back to my own hotel and discovered that I had an hour before my shuttle would take me back to the airport. I opened the book and found page one.

I wasn't sure what to expect. I hadn't really even thought about it. I'm sure the last thing I was expecting was a story about a complete stranger sitting next to her on an airplane, spouting information about her that was quite frankly scary. As I read, I was drawn into Reichl's world, experiencing what she experienced. I took note of her description of her airline food, using it to incorrectly predict the tone of the rest of the book. By the time I finished that first chapter, the browning edges of the airline salad were forgotten.

This book tells a story, or perhaps a collection of related stories, of her years as the restaurant critic at the New York Times. At the time she was the food editor at the Los Angeles Times, and had no desire to relocate to the other side of the country and live in New York. She accepted an offer to meet for fifteen minutes for coffee, which ended up turning into a day-long interview with various editors and such at the Times. This would eventually turn into them almost begging her to take the job, which she did.

Inspired perhaps by the stranger on the airplane, Reichl takes to disguises, and the personalities that they wrap her in with them. Some are bold, some are timid. She begins her employment at the Times by revoking a star from Le Cirque, one of New York's most celebrated restaurants, and for good reason. I mentally cheered as her piece was printed, and she received voice mail from people telling her how glad they were that somebody was finally on their side. The controversies are set in motion, as she refuses to accept French, Italian and Continental fare as the only cuisine worth considering, and starts giving two and three stars to noodle shops in So Ho for their divine offerings of Asian culture. Reichl recognizes that Europe does not hold monopoly on fine food, and is not afraid to tell New York that. She is called an idiot by many, including Bryan Miller, the previous critic, for her bold opinions.

I don't believe Reichl intended to portray Miller as an enemy, but each time she mentioned him, my dislike of him grew. I finally decided that the only way to objectively view him was to see if he had any books out. When I searched for him on Amazon, the first result was Dessert for Dummies. Second was Cooking Basics for Dummies. Ever since reading Networking for Dummies several years ago, my plight to learn a little more about a field that fascinated me met by little more than advising the reader to bribe systems administrators with twinkies before attempting to learn anything themselves, I had despised the Dummies series. Having played the sysadmin role myself on occassion, I have difficulty thinking of that entire series without some degree of comtempt. As I read more about Miller, I wondered how much he took the concept of Cooking Basics for Dummies to heart. I still wonder if those books are really meant for dummies, or just for people that sometimes feel like dummies.

In contrast to Miller's apparently arrogant approach to food, Reichl seems to have nothing but love for it. She describes dishes in a manner that makes me imagine them more avidly than I suspect I could had I actually been there. The book is littered with recipes that seem reassuring to the reader, each a silent pat on the back and a reminder from the author that yes, you really can be a good cook, and why don't I help you find out how?

When she describes a dish that is lacking, I feel a sadness that I am sure that she felt at the time, that the food was not better taken care of. An occassional contempt will glide across her words, and I know that it is not for people who behave poorly, but for the behavior itself. When she describes one restaurant, described by many as the most romantic places to eat in New York, she becomes embittered about the service and the food alike, and attempts to view the restaurant from the eyes of one of the most poorly behaved people working there. Fortunately, a friend manages to slap her out of it and help her realize who and what she was becoming.

As I reached the final pages of the book, I was disappointed only that there were no more. It's not often that I get to read something purely for pleasure, and when I try I am often too distracted to focus on it. This was the first book I'd read since Kitchen Confidential that refused to let me put it down. My distractions faded as I read, and before I was even halfway through I was on a mission to finish as quickly as possible. I could barely wait to find out what would happen next. I suppose I expected the book to cover only a fraction of her time at that job, that the book would end before she left the paper. When she ended instead with an offer for what was to become her next job, I felt a sense of completion.

As I read this book, I thought about people who would enjoy it. My wife, a hairdresser and previously a theatre major, would love the fashion aspect. Our friend Susan, who sings for the Utah Opera and makes the best fried green tomatoes I have ever imagined, would adore it. And then I realized that I could not think of a single person who would not enjoy it.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Omaha Steakhouse, Phoenix AZ

That's right, I'm in Phoenix right now! I came down here to train for, and take the ISTQB Foundation Level exam. The hotel that the course is being taught at is the Embassy Suites Biltmore, which features an Omaha Steakhouse. I'll get to that in a moment.

By the time I registered for the course, the Embassy Suites was pretty much already booked for the week, except for a couple of rooms that were a bit more expensive than my company was willing to pay for. Since I was also unwilling to pay the difference, I ended up booking a room at a cheaper hotel nearby, called the Phoenix Inn.

My room at the Phoenix Inn is officially the nicest hotel room I've ever stayed in during my limited travel experience. I base this fact on the following points:

  1. There is a microwave
  2. There is a mini-fridge (empty, but available for use)
  3. The TV gets Food Network
  4. The hotel offers free continental breakfast
  5. There are "fresh-baked" cookies available in the evening
  6. They have wi-fi Internet access
  7. The Internet access is free
  8. The Internet access actually works

Some of you may remember my wife's and my recent trip to Las Vegas. I don't believe I went into much, if any detail on our room and stay at the MGM Grand. Of the eight above points, the MGM Grand only met #6. If I could go back and rebook our hotel, I would have chosen Ceasar's Palace instead, which was the same price at the time. I have no doubt the room features would have been at least as abysmal, but at least we would have had better places to eat.

Now, let me talk about the Embassy Suites Biltmore hotel. It's a nice place. It's a really nice place. I would love to have stayed there. Fortunately, it was only a ten minute walk from my own hotel. If I had felt lazy enough, I even found that the two hotels share a bus route. I am pretty cheap though, so I was glad to discover that the Phoenix Inn offers a free airport shuttle, while the Biltmore lets you know on their site that cab fare from the airport is only about $20. And did I mention that wi-fi at the Biltmore is $10/day?

Still, I loved being there for the conference. The inside of the Biltmore is just plain classy. There are pools and stone walkways all over, and the hotel rooms look from the outside almost like really classy apartments, with the doors on the inside of the building instead of the outside. The rails reminded me of Radio City Music Hall. And of course, it would seem that Omaha Steaks has set up a nice little steakhouse as the hotel restaurant. Perhaps I set my initial expectations a little high.

A continental breakfast was covered in the price of the conference, as was lunch. Breakfast was better than at my hotel, at least on the first day. They offered pastries and fresh fruit, coffee and fruit juice. My hotel offered things like sausage and eggs, both perfectly round and manufactured. But things took a turn for the worse when we were ready for lunch.

From the sounds of it, the location in which we were supposed to be served lunch changed several times that morning. When noon hit, we all made our way over to a particularly empty-looking area, and milled around until somebody asked an employee and we were directed to a private room on the other side of the restaurant.

Each place setting already had a salad sitting at it, and a glass each of ice water and iced tea. No other drink options were offered, and since tea tends to taste like a bale of hay to me, I contented myself with the water. The salad consisted of: poorly cut Romaine lettuce, the occassional shred of purple cabbage, a few carrot matchsticks, and two slices of tomato. The dressing was unlabelled, but apparently some house Italian blend. The only thing that impressed me about the salad was that they used Romaine, rather than iceberg. The only thing that impressed me about the dressing was that it wasn't ranch. Everything else about the two was nothing short of insulting. For a hotel that nice, I was a little surprised that the chef couldn't be bothered to come up with anything that was the least bit original or interesting.

There were also rolls at the table, which weren't particularly bad. Unfortunately, they weren't anything special either. I only bothered with one. As we finished our salads, the waiters would take away our salad plates and replace them with our entrees. This was done in shifts. First, about half of the entrees were brought out from the kitchen. Then most of the other half were delivered. Two people were still without theirs, including the instructor and myself. We waited for a considerable time before ours were brought. When they finally arrived, our instructor's was wrong. He had specified, apparently several times, that he needed a low-fat version. In this case, that would have meant simply leaving the cheese off of the Monterey chicken. This was not done. When he mentioned it to the waiter, he told him that another salad would be perfectly okay, and that they didn't need to do anything else special for him. The waiter took the plate away and came back some time later with the same entree as the rest of us had, minus the chicken but with extra polenta. The plate was announced somewhat curtly as the "vegetarian" entree. The vegetables were swimming in clarified butter, and definitely not "low fat".

Let me give you some more detail about this entree. It was Monterey chicken, as I mentioned. It was well-seasoned, and reasonably well-cooked, if perhaps a little overdone. It came with two triangles of something that looked like cornbread, but were actually polenta. If you were expecting cornbread as the rest of the class apparently was, you would be sorely disappointed. If you were expecting polenta, it wasn't bad. But it was also nothing special, other than it was lighter than most polenta. It also came with vegetables: sliced carrots, zucchini and yellow squash, soaked in clarified butter. The carrots were undercooked, and the contrast to the other vegetables which were well-cooked, was jarring. And I don't know if I've mentioned this lately, but I'm really getting sick of the zucchini/yellow sqaush/carrot cop-out. Why would you go to all the trouble of putting together a nice plate otherwise, and then make the vegetables such an obvious afterthought?

Dessert wasn't much of a surprise. It was chocolate mousse, piped with a star tip into a nice, stemmed glass, with a fresh piece of strawberry and a little bit of whipped cream on top, and raspberry preserves on the bottom. Does anyone see the problem here? That's right, the chef should have either used fresh raspberry on top, or strawberry preserves on the bottom. It's helpful to the diner to have the garnish represent a key ingredient elsewhere. The mousse itself tasted like Hershey's syrup. Not bad, but this was supposed to be a nice restaurant. One of the things that seperates the Charlie Trotters of the world from the McDonalds of the world is that little extra touch, the bit of class that shows that the chef really cares about his food. I wanted to ask if the chef had been hired straight from Applebees.

Our continental breakfast the next day was the same, except with manufactured-tasting quickbreads instead of delicious pastries. I was beginning to feel a little more jaded. But lunch on day two, that was where it got really disappointing.

We had a different waiter. He actually seemed to enjoy his job a little, and was interested in making sure we were content. Not happy, I suppose, just content. Again, we had pre-filled ice water and iced tea glasses, and no other drink choices. Our salad was not laid out immediately, and when it came it was, and I kid you not, a pile of poorly-cut Romaine lettuce, and two tomatoes that had been dipped in that ghastly dressing. That was it. I gave mine to the girl sitting next to me, who had arrived after the salads were passed out. It wasn't just insulting anymore, it was just a joke.

This time, we had two special requests. Our instructor had requested that his entree be served to him without the gravy. This was done promptly, and he was happy with it. But the little Indian girl next to me (dot, not feather) had more cultural concerns. The entree was pork, which she would not be eating any more than beef. She told us that chicken was okay, but no other meats. When we told the waiter this, he thought that they were talking about me, and they tried to give her my plate. We corrected him, and he gave the plate to me, and then disappeared for a very long time before returning with exactly the same entree as everyone else, but with a piece of Monterey chicken about half the size of one of the two chicken breasts that had been served the day before.

Now, the entree was a pork chop, bone-in. It was huge. It was nearly the size of my fist. To say that it was tough would be like calling New York City a small village. I have never seen a piece of meat so overcooked, and I've burned some meats pretty badly. You would never know this, of course, because it looked prefectly colored and perfectly tasty. I immediately discovered the texture of the meat when I tried to cut into it when I tried to cut into it with the provided butterknife. It took nearly a minute to make my first cut, and when I took a bite, the only hint of moisture was from the untrimmed chunks of fat on the side. It was as if the chef was purposely and personally mocking me. The mashed potatoes were decent, but I didn't even bother with the carrot, zucchini and yellow squash medley. I made it halfway through my hunk of pork before giving up and leaving the table. I didn't bother waiting for dessert.

I don't know what our food will be like tomorrow, but I'm not expecting much. I'm still debating whether to go to lunch with the group, or walk over to the California Pizza Kitchen in the nearby Biltmore Fashion Park and endure their Wolfgang Punk-wannabe menu. As a consumer, I'm disappointed to say the least with the service and food at the Omaha Steakhouse at the Embassy Suites Biltmore. As a chef, I'm just plain disgusted. Food and service have taken a back seat to literally everything else at this hotel restaurant. I still wouldn't mind staying at the hotel, but I'm glad that there's an Arbys less than a mile away so that I won't starve.

Saturday, December 2, 2006

Supermarket Follies

I thought I'd share some recent stories about various trips to the supermarket. It's an interesting place, you know. It's frequented by a lot of interesting people. I guess I'm one of them.

My wife and I were at CostCo the other day. We were walking around the grocery side of the store, with a fairly short shopping list. I usually let me wife push the cart because if I try to push it, she always ends up taking it from me anyway. There was a particularly slow lady pushing her cart, taking all the time in the world. There's always people like that. So my wife moved to go around her, since we were done on that aisle anyway. I kid you not, this woman looked at my wife, got a determined expression on her face, and actually sped up so that my wife couldn't pass her. For those of you who have never driven in Utah before and plan to do so in the future, this is the essence of the Utah driver: you cannot let somebody else get ahead of you. It's a me-first world in Utah, both on the roads and in the supermarket. I don't know what's at stake here, but apparently it's pretty important.

I was at Smith's Food and Drug tonight, doing some weekly shopping. For those of you who don't know me, let me tell you a little about myself. I have a beard. For many people in Utah county, this means that I look like the devil himself. When it's cold, I wear my coat. I think the professionals refer to it as a biker jacket. Tonight was particularly cold, so I was wearing a black hoodie between my coat and my black and red bowling shirt. I wear black boots and painters jeans. I am currently missing a front tooth. As far as most people are concerned, I look like a miscreant. It's kind of fun. With tonight's grocery store visit, there seemed to be a lot more people avoiding me than usual. My favorite? He was probably just over six feet tall. His beard and hair were gray. His argyle sweater was about the same color as his beard. He wore slacks and nice shoes. He was distinguished. And he was most disapproving of me.

You know how cats and babies always seem to be most interested in the one person in the room that wants nothing to do with them? That's what I was reminded of. I wanted to mess with this guy. I always want to mess with people. Fortunately for them, I'm not really the type to actually do anything. Well, not intentionally. I first saw this guy in the produce section. I always attract strange looks when I scrutinize each jalapenos before finally choosing it. Each time I glanced in this guy's direction, he was giving me a disapproving look before turning away. I saw him again by the tortillas, and then finally in the Christmas section. Each time I noticed him, he was busy giving me disapproving looks. It made me laugh inside.

Finally finished picking up groceries, I made my way to the registers. There were four self-serve registers open, each with a fifteen-item limit. There was one customer checking out at them. There were two more regular express registers open, each with the same limit. One had no customers. And there was one register open with no limit, and three people in line. As I got into line behind them with my thirty or so items, two more carts got into line behind me. The women in front of me, with her cart packed as if for a family of six for a week, tried to occupy her time by looking at the tabloids, giving me disapproving looks, analyzing the line situation behind her, and finally moving into line at an express register. I moved forward.

The man who was now in front of me was busy loading his fifteen or so items onto the belt. He had plenty of space on the belt behind him, and did not bother to put one of those divider things behind his groceries. I reached past him, grabbed a divider, and started unloading my groceries onto the belt. Once finished with that, I put another divider behind my groceries so that the couple behind me could start unloading their considerable groceries onto the belt. They apparently felt it most appropriate to wait until I slide my debit card through the card reader to unload their groceries, in a mad dash. Perhaps they were timing themselves. It's important to know how fast you can do these things, I suppose. The cashier, who kept a fairly distant and bored tone to his voice when ringing me up suddenly sounded friendly to them as I was leaving. Perhaps he knows them.

I suppose if I dressed differently, more people at the store would appreciate me. Perhaps it would at least cut down on the disapproving looks. Then again, it seems like an awful lot of work to please a lot of complete strangers, and try to get people to like me that would seemingly rather adopt a "guilty until proven innocent" attitude towards people they know nothing about. Of course, by labeling them as such, maybe I'm just as bad as them.

I'm not in a popularity contest when I go to the grocery store. I try to be curteous to other shoppers, and give them the benefit of the doubt. If somebody is in my way, I politely say, "pardon me" to them, and they move. Golden rule, right? But I'm not trying to win some fashion show or anything. I dress how I dress, and if people aren't willing to accept me, then that's their problem, and my amusement. If they aren't willing to give me the same courtesies that I try to give them, so be it. I'm kind of used to it by now. Besides, it makes for some interesting people watching for me.