The Snake Plant… and a marriage

Sansevieria trifasciata. That’s the scientific name for a “snake plant” (also Viper’s bowstring hemp, mother-in-law’s tongue or Saint George’s sword if you really want to get in the weeds about it).

It’s a homely plant. You see them in malls and lots of public places because they’re easy to grow inside, require almost no maintenance, and while unusual in appearance, they (barely) fulfill the need to liven up the lifeless interiors common to most modern public environments with something green and alive. I never gave them much thought, and you probably haven’t either.

For me, that changed just a little over 22 years ago. Kathy and I were living in our first apartment together. We weren’t married yet, and had very little money. The apartment… well, it wasn’t nice. It had those lovely parquet wood floors common in apartments that seemed to scream “this is a transient space.” It was a first floor apartment and the only nice thing about it, other than that we could just barely afford it, was the little patio we had. But since we had no money, it didn’t really have anything on it, but there was at least the potential.

We had money for food and necessities (barely!) but not decorative plants or other niceties. We also had neighbors who were frankly slobs (as in “Oh, that’s where the damn roaches are coming from!”). We’d occasionally find trash thrown off their balcony outside our patio. All-in-all, not a nice place, but we were together and young, and that made it better.

One day I happened to notice a green leaf (really almost a long, flat stalk) on the ground outside our patio. Probably no more than 6-inches long, it was pointy on one end, flat on the other, and rigid. It wasn’t even the whole thing, but for some reason I got it into my head to see if I could get it to sprout. Honestly I had no idea if it would work, but not knowing what I’m doing doesn’t often stop me. So I brought it in and plopped it into a container with some water. Weeks passed. And then a tiny little root (technically, I think, a rhizome) appeared. Success! We waited a few months and then planted it in a small pot I believe we salvaged from somewhere.

The plant grew. New leaves popped up, spreading out from that central one. Years passed, and we moved it to a bigger pot. It grew some more. More years passed, and we separated the leaves into two pots and watched them grow. Those two plants got their own new, larger pots. The plants grow slowly – just a handful of inches a year, but they never really stop – the leaves get to be about three feet long and new leaves appear every so often.

And now we have this:

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They look still rather as homely as any other snake plant. Nothing about them will ever be remarkable, botanically speaking. They live and grow, and we water them, move them outside during the summers, and back inside in the winters. They are, in essence, just sort of boring.

But today marks the 22nd anniversary of Katherine and I getting married. And those plants have been with us every single day. They’ve been there for our first fights and for the late night discussions where we talked about how to be better people. They were there for our cats to brush up against (and occasionally knock over) and they were there when we had to say goodbye to our cats. They were there for the birth of our two children – and their first steps, their first words, and all the other firsts. From the looks of it, they’ll be there in two more years when our oldest gets his drivers license, and probably will still be here when our youngest moves out on her own. Hell, they might outlive us both. (They say 20 to 25 years is the most that can be expected but honestly I don’t think these plants can die!)

In short, these plants are the most magnificent fucking plants that ever lived. They came into our lives by accident, they grow very slowly, and we have whole gardens of plants now, but they’re still spectacular.

My wife and I married almost a year to the day after we met. We were young and not even complete adults yet. And in the years since our kids were born, time seems to only move  faster and faster. But I look at those plants and can see the years that have gone by – and remember.

When you’re young and just falling in love, it’s all about roses and other traditional floral selections. And when we pass, it’s all about the flowers again. But in that middle bit, when you’ve been married for more than two decades, and have kids and a mortgage, it can sometimes just be about that unassuming little plant you first got when you were just starting out. The value is not in the thing itself, but in what value you invest in it and how you recognize what it symbolizes – in short, it’s sometimes just about being able to appreciate the little things. And happiness is seeing the big things, which are really too big to even be perceived or think about, reflected in those little things.

Thank you Katherine. Thank you for seeing that even though I wasn’t complete yet, with the right kind of love and attention, I’d grow into being the person you always believed I could be. And thank you for supporting my dreams, even the silly one where I thought I could get a sad little leaf that was thrown away to sprout and grow into something that thrived. Twenty-two years seems an odd anniversary to commemorate, but when have I ever been a slave to expectations or tradition? Love you!

 

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Nostalgia, Toys, and Making Connections in a Small World

Much has been said of how the Internet has made the world smaller and more connected. So often in fact, it has now become cliche to comment on it at all. But occasionally one gets reminded of it in such a strong way, you can’t help but shake your head in disbelief …and just a touch of wonder.

Let’s go back to 1980. There’s a small boy, nine years old, sitting on the floor of his family’s living room staring with quiet intensity at what’s before him. We notice he’s small for his age, both in height and in weight (not quite at the point where he disappears if he turns sideways, but it’s a near thing). He has large blue eyes, a mop of dark blonde hair, and a head that is quite a bit larger than the rest of him. He’s been sitting where he is for about two hours, quietly doing what makes him happiest — building.

He has a Millennium Falcon and a X-Wing nearby, along with the requisite action figures. But he’s not playing with those right now. Instead he’s building an Imperial prison. Then he’s building a Rebel base. Now it’s another spacecraft, but one never dreamed of by the masters of model building and practical effects employed by George Lucas. This isn’t LEGO, ruled by right angles or poor stepped approximations of diagonals. This is something infinitely more flexible. It’s a construction set called “Ramagon” and it inspired that young boy like no other toy before or since.

Vintage-1979-Toy-RAMAGON-2000-Construction-System

It also doesn’t exist anymore. Out of production for years now, I had even forgotten the name of it for awhile.

As you might guess, that boy was me, and that Ramagon construction set was, without a doubt, my favorite toy ever. It had a unique hub and strut building system that allowed you to make beautiful and strange creations that not only were large, but looked like the very definition of “the future,” circa 1979. While you could still make right angles, you could actually make connections in twenty-six separate directions off a single piece. While the structures you built looked and felt lightweight, they were substantial and sturdy.

It was not only a fascinating toy to build with just for the sake of building, it was the perfect way to build things that you could use with other toys and action figures. With triangular and square panels, you could create platforms and give your creations heft and solidity. Without the panels you could create airy, skeletal constructions that looked very similar to the plans for a space station that NASA had been planning at the time. I built elaborate worlds for my Star Wars toys. I built towers taller than I was. But the most fun I had was just building really complex geometrical shapes and seeing what I could do with them.

Ramagon  Micro base

I got older of course, and my Ramagon set eventually disappeared – probably in some charity donation. But I played with that set for a good six or seven years. Looking back later I realized that it hadn’t been just a toy used for entertainment, but something that helped me learn problem-solving and spatial visualization. I learned how to break big problems down into smaller pieces. I learned to balance having a plan with spontaneity and imagination. And while I love LEGO too, just connecting one brick to another isn’t very exciting – the building process with LEGO felt like a grind, the focus being on what you were building more than how you built it. Ramagon on the other hand opened up a whole world of possibility — not only allowing you to think about making connections in all directions, but encouraging it.

Flashing forward a number of years, and I now had two children of my own and I wanted to give my kids the same toy I’d had and more importantly the same experience I’d had. The first hurdle was one I’m ashamed to admit: while the toy had stayed fresh in my memories, the name of it was something I’d forgotten decades and decades ago. I did a lot of web searches for “1980s construction toy” and looked at a lot of pictures. I even searched for “1970s construction toy” as, with a child’s self-centeredness, I had no idea how long it had existed before I got mine.

Finally I had my eureka moment and found references and pictures on some sites that listed older toys. It was… Ramagon. Honestly, how I forgot a name like that I’ll never know. And to be fair, the Ramagon pieces were never emblazoned with a brand name the same way way LEGO pieces are.

Well, now I had a name but my jubilation was short lived. Turns out that by the time my kids were old enough to play with them and I went looking for them, they had been discontinued. I was crushed. As a parent, we all tend to want our children to be introduced to the things we loved best from our own childhoods and it looked like I wasn’t going to be able to do that. This was especially discouraging as I thought that Ramagon was the ultimate building toy that could be enjoyed by both my son and my daughter. Especially as both of them have tons of LEGO, and the later Ramagon sets had added panels that allowed kids to integrate their creations with LEGO bricks. I knew they’d love the possibilities it represented. It was frustrating knowing the perfect toy existed at one point but now was effectively gone.

I’d occasionally look for people selling Ramagon sets and would find some outrageously priced sets on eBay, sigh dramatically, and go about my business. My kids continued to get more and more LEGO sets and other construction toys and I continued to comment “Those are cool, but back in my day, I had the perfect building set…” They would roll their eyes and go back to what they were doing.

In the second half of last year I started wondering about where Ramagon came from. Who had invented it? It’s funny – so many commercial toys are completely divorced in the public mind from the person who invented them. Big toy companies don’t have much interest in promoting creative talent the same way tech companies do (obvious break-out hits like Rubik’s Cube being the exception). But I had a feeling that it would be possible to identify a single individual as the inventor – the set, its history, and everything I’d found out so far made me feel like this was someone’s passion, not the result of corporate focus groups and demographic targeting.

I’d already learned that it was never a toy in the same league as LEGO or Erector (or the later K’NEX) in terms of popularity and I would get met with blank stares and shrugs whenever I told people about it. After a consulting job that had me researching various patents, I decided to try looking through registered patents to see if I could find the person who had created, in essence, some of the happiest moments of my childhood.

US4129975-1Thanks to the Internet and specifically Google, searching patents is much easier than it used to be. That said, trying to find a patent without knowing the inventor or even the company that originally manufactured it (I knew the license for the toys changed hands over the years), is very difficult. Especially as the Ramagon name itself likely wasn’t even going to be mentioned in the patent (though later patents for similar toys did mention the toy by name). After much searching and looking at crazy toy designs (most of which were probably never sold anywhere) I found one: U.S. Patent 4129975 A. Inventor: Richard J. Gabriel.

So Mr. Gabriel invented the toy I still thought about all these years later. My question was answered, but I didn’t know what to do with that information. However, as I sometimes do, I drafted a letter in my head, thanking Mr. Gabriel for having created something that meant so much to a quiet, shy kid who found a way to express himself by building what he saw in his imagination. I was sure it was a letter that would never be sent. How could I even find him to send it? Would he even care? Was he even still alive?

And once again we come back to the point I made at the beginning – the world is smaller than it used to be. I grew up at the end of the era of three TV networks and rotary phones, and while I’m frequently an early adopter of new technologies, I can’t say that my thinking isn’t a little colored by a worldview now several decades out of date.

I went ahead and searched using Mr. Gabriel’s name and the word “Ramagon.” I found quite a few hits, mostly the meta cruft that is often associated with business listings. Lots of information, but none of it especially useful. I paged through more results, and finally… unbelievably… I found not just a website, but his website. Fittingly, he’s been an architect for more than 25 years, and there on his website was his email address.

I typed out basically what I’d already drafted in my head and sent him an email, not really expecting anything, but just wanting more than anything to say “Thank you.” That same day I received a reply from his wife Ann letting me know he’d get back to me in a couple of days. I was astounded.

Richard (and his wife Ann) wrote back and thus began a correspondence we’ve sporadically maintained in the midst of busy schedules. Richard and Ann have led fascinating lives, and I’ve loved hearing about what they’ve done and what they have planned. I even managed to provide a little help to them involving web design and online marketing. It was literally the least I could do in return for what I’d already received from Richard. I consider myself lucky to now count Richard and Ann as friends.

This had all started with the itch of unsatisfied nostalgia. I had gone looking for an old toy, and by extension, my childhood. I wanted to find a way to express appreciation for something that gave me so much joy as a child. I found so much more than that.

I found a link to my past that gave me a new perspective. I found new friends it felt like I had known for years. And thanks to the unbelievable generosity of Richard and Ann, I found something else too. In the mail this week, I received the following:

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Richard had, at my request, even signed the boxes for me. And with that, I was finally able to pass along to my children that idolized toy from my childhood. And along with it, a connection to a world that is both smaller and more amazing than the world I lived in some thirty-five years ago.

From the moment I pulled the sets out of the box they were shipped in, my kids’ eyes lit up. There were appreciative oohs and ahhs from both of them. My oldest, who just turned 13 and who has begun to have a pretty good idea of the value of such things, commented “It almost seems a shame to open them up.” I answered back “It would be a bigger shame not to.” And with that, we set about building.

I may have bogarted the toys a bit at the beginning. The pieces felt comfortably familiar in my hands. The click as pieces came together providing the same satisfying completeness that it had so many years ago. We built a spaceship. We built a Martian base. We built.

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This isn’t a story about nostalgia, or toys, or being an uber geek about something (though it obviously includes all those things). For me, this experience has been about the sort of connections possible in the small, connected world we live in, and the connections that exist within ourselves. How those connections can go off at any angle but that together, they can make something beautiful, strange, and the very definition of “the future.” It’s been about how when things click together just right, it provides a sense of completion.

And I hope for Richard that this is a story about how if you build with passion and creativity, as he did, what you built will last far longer than you could have dreamed.

I want to once again express my heartfelt thanks and deepest appreciation to Richard and Ann. Nine times out of ten, or maybe even ninety-nine times out of a hundred, if someone in a similar situation had received my email, assuming they even read it, they’d likely just smile and move on. I think it says something that they didn’t. Maybe with all their experiences across the globe, they realize that while it may be a small world, it’s full of large stories and the greatest fun comes either from making your own or from being a part of as many of them as you can.

Good News Everybody! I Made Four New Year’s Resolutions So You Don’t Have To…

I’ve always believed New Year’s resolutions were… well, bullshit to be quite frank. Why wait for a day to roll around on your calendar to decide to change something about your life? Yes, yes – there’s the end of the year and maybe you’ve had some time off from work or spent some time with your family and received just that little extra bit of changed perspective that inspires you to change. If so, go for it! But I suspect the majority of resolutions come about because:

  1. We think we should because everyone is (supposedly) doing it
  2. We’ve tried to make a change in the past and it didn’t work out, so we hope the impetus of a new year is the boost we need to make it happen
  3. We’re desperate due to some unhappiness in our life and we can’t face another year without trying to do something — anything really — to try and change that.

With the exception of number 1 above, those are good reasons, and again I say go for it! (But maybe don’t wait for the calendar to force you. No time like the present and all that.)

So why am I writing a piece the purports to put forward a set of resolutions for all of us if I think they’re not that helpful? It comes down to that “all of us” bit. These aren’t resolutions for each of us as individuals, these are resolutions for us collectively as humans. Now, to be clear, it takes a fair bit of arrogance to presume you have all the answers and while I have never been accused of being overly modest, I honestly don’t think I have all the answers. Or even most of them for that matter. But some things have stood out to me more and more over the past couple years and I want to encourage us to try and address them. I could be wrong and freely admit that, but if one of the ideas below gets you to thinking about something in a different way, I say mission accomplished!

One note about context: most of these came about because of exchanges and postings on the Internet. That, however, does not mean that they only apply there. And that leads to to…

Error MessageResolution #1: Let’s stop pretending the Internet is something different from everything else. Just because communication is broken down to 1s and 0s and then reassembled does not offer some magic transmutation that isolates this mode of communication from everything else. As I’ve written before, there is no “real life” and “online life” – it’s all just life, because it’s us. That’s all the validation it needs. This idea that because something happens online – whether it’s a posting to Facebook, meeting someone, or whatever is different from “real life” is not only wrong, it’s toxic and unhealthy. By distancing what occurs online from “real life” we are hamstringing our empathy, which when it comes down to it, is the only thing that makes the great sea of humanity around us at all tolerable. Without empathy, without the ability to see those you interact with as humans and something like ourselves, interactions devolve into tribalism, wars, distrust, and hate. So basically the worst part of ourselves. When we view “online” as separate from ourselves and our lives, we take no ownership for what happens there. The “tragedy of the commons” writ larger than it has even been writ before in human history and our ability to communicate with each other being the resource being depleted.

There are other aspects as well, especially legal, where it makes no sense to treat what is online or digital as somehow different, but those are mere inconvenience next to the giant morass that is our inability to constructively interact and communicate with each other. One can argue (fruitlessly it seems to me) about what “makes us human,” but when it comes down to what makes a civilization and culture, it’s the ability to communicate and empathize. So if we like that sort of thing, we should probably at least consider this one.

256px-Radio_News_Sep_1928_CoverResolution #2: Stop watching TV news.
I grew up (back in the ancient times of the ’70s and ’80s) watching the local news, the national evening news, and in my later teens, the local evening news. I also grew up listening to news radio and reading the newspaper, weekly news magazines, and pretty much anything else I could read. (tl;dr – my parents were news junkies for various reasons) Then as I grew older and the Web came to be a thing, I stopped. First went the local news. Then the national news. Then the newspapers and magazines. But when it comes to current events, I consider myself better informed than most (thanks Internet and diverse news sources!). For some of you millennials, I’ll probably have to explain that it used to be the case that something wasn’t regarded as having happened until the likes of Walter Cronkite told us so, and then we read the paper the next day to figure out the details of what it was that happened, and then we read a weekly magazine like Newsweek to find out what it all meant. We’d spend up to two weeks just getting it straight in our heads what happened. It was imperfect, flawed, and slow, but it worked in it’s own way.

Then something changed. We got 24-hour news channels. To fill all that time, they’d hype stuff relentlessly, just to keep eyeballs glued to the screen (because that got viewers and that gets advertisers and that gets money). Local and national network broadcasts changed to compete in an escalating war of “This common household product may be killing you!” stories. Then they hit on the real winning formula. Celebrities. But not just movie or sports celebrities – anyone who had the least bit of fame was fair game, and being a democracy, we have a whole host of people who are most notable for being slightly famous – politicians. So now we treat entertainment gossip as “news” and political news as gossip. Today, those channels still have 24 hours of programming to fill, and they continue to create “narratives” rather than news. “The reveal” morphs into “the backlash” which then dives into coverage of “the debate,” and this in turn will sometimes spinoff into the “why this difference of opinion reveals how broken everything is“, and then it all either gets ignored (if it just becomes too boring but no worries – it will be revived later with the “whatever ever happened to…” piece in a year or two) or it merely starts again – rebooted if you will – once some new event happens. I mean, we all complain about movie reboots, but CNN and Fox News have been pulling that crap for years.

So what I’m suggesting is, that no matter your ideological bent,  we all just stop watching TV news. No more MSNBC, no more Fox News, no more CNN… no more network evening news — none of it. Sure, other news sources are just as beleaguered, but there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with them as formats. Whereas news and TV are inherently incompatible – TV news provides the illusion of being informed with none of the substance – it has no information density and becomes merely an echo chamber. Want to learn something about what’s happening in the world? Do literally anything else. Read a newspaper (if for no other reason than you can tell your grandkids about it one day), or preferably go online. But don’t just go to one site, go to as many as you can – read articles from places where you won’t know what the article is going to say before you read it. Don’t know where to start? Browse Twitter. Sign up for Feedly. Just whatever you do, don’t turn on the TV to get your news – it not only doesn’t work, it pollutes the well of discourse in the name of increasing some megacorp’s bottom line. When a news source becomes more concerned with it’s bottom line than in reporting the news, it should stop being considered a news source.

Resolution #3: Realize no one gets a cookie for being right. What do I mean? I mean that, especially in America, we are so concerned with winners and losers, we’ve lost sight of the fact that not every issue has a winner or a loser. We seem to have become so uncomfortable with gray areas that we avoid thinking or talking about them and every issue becomes a battle between opposing sides, and the ultimate casualties are nuance and understanding. We’ve all become this:

Except we’re all this way with everything now, not just the Internet

To give you an example: the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. “Obamacare.” Back before this was passed by Congress and signed by the President, there was discussion about what the legislation actually did (not nearly as much as there should have been, but some). So what do we hear about now? If you’re a Republican holding office, you’re stance is pretty much required to be “Repeal it!” or at the very least “Sabotage it’s implementation!” And if you’re a Democratic office holder, you’re dictated stance is “Protect it at all costs.” The debate has stopped being about how to generally improve health care in this country, and become who can score the most political points off the opposition over this flawed piece of legislation that nonetheless has improved healthcare for millions.

Photo by sajbrfem / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

It’s mental laziness. Rather than thinking about the hard stuff, we drift towards what’s easy: declaring ourselves right, and anyone who disagrees with us as wrong. Never acknowledging what’s wrong in our own assumptions and what’s right in the assumptions of others. I could literally spend all day giving other examples: abortion, the death penalty, climate change, race, guns, police use of force, GMOs, sexism … the list goes on. These issues have become entirely focused on the debates themselves and have lost sight of trying to find solutions that actually might improve the world we all live in. The only time a specific point is raised is when one side attempts to wield it like an intellectual Excalibur to slay every argument of the opposition.

So let’s be clear. Being “right” doesn’t entitle you to anything. No awards. No trophies. And no cookies. And it most certainly doesn’t entitle you to stop thinking about things. Which leads us into…

chooseagain-8ballResolution #4: Choose again. Lastly, we come to this. All good fiction, in my opinion, is transformative for the reader by definition. But once in awhile, you’ll run across something that truly and deeply changes your perspective. Such was the case with myself and Dan Simmons Hyperion/Endymion novels (known as ‘The Hyperion Cantos‘). A fascinating amalgamation of sci-fi, horror, and fantasy liberally sprinkled with literary allusions, it introduces a Messiah-like character named Aenea whose message for mankind is simply “Choose again.” To explain that, let me provide this excerpt from Rise of Endymion, the fourth book in the series:

“I got my message down to thirty-five words. Too long. Then down to twenty-seven. Still too long. After a few years I had it down to ten. STill too long. Eventually I boiled it down to two words.”
“Two words?” I said. “Which two?”

“Choose again,” said Aenea.
I considered that for a wheezing, panting moment. “Choose again?” I said finally.
Aenea smiled. She had caught her wind and was looking down at the vertical view that I was afraid even to glance toward. She seemed to be enjoying it. I had the friendly urge to toss her off the mountain right then. Youth. It’s intolerable sometimes.
“Choose again,” she said firmly.
“Care to elaborate on that?”
“No,” said Aenea. “That’s the whole idea. Keep it simple. But name a category and you get the idea.”
“Religion,” I said.
“Choose again,” said Aenea.

When we look for answers, humans tend to either adopt a stance based on what they think they should (parents, society, etc.) or by rejecting a stance based on what they dislike (again parents, society, etc.) — but, and this is the part where we all fail time and again, we don’t often revisit those assumptions. By believing in them, we take them into ourselves and they become a part of us, and when they are challenged, we react as if we ourselves have been attacked. Once that happens, discussions stop being about the issue and become about us.

The benefits to changing this — to constantly and consistently deciding to “choose again” — are two-fold. First, we can better adapt (you know, that trait that got us from being single-celled critters intent on eating each other to creatures that could wear smart watches and order a Triple, Venti, Half Sweet, Non-Fat, Caramel Macchiato) – to changing circumstances or new evidence. Secondly, by focusing as intensely on questioning ourselves as those around us, we gain better understanding of ourselves and empathy towards others. Institution after institution throughout human history has survived and even flourished by working against this – and yet human progress continues on, always because of someone deciding to choose again. And then the the disruption becomes the new status quo, until someone chooses again – often at great cost.

It’s by no means easy, but let’s realize perfect is the enemy of good enough and give it a try. What can it hurt?

And there you have it…

So if everyone follows these resolutions in 2015, can I guarantee world peace, an end to hunger, and whiter whites and no ring-around-the-collar? Nope. I can’t guarantee bupkis. That’s sort of the whole point. And certainly none of these ideas are original to me. But are any of them inherently flawed? I don’t think so. In my own can’t-quite-shake-being-a-child-of-the-70s way, I do believe if enough people adopted these as their own, the world would be a better place. There is so much energy that we pour into discussions of certain issues without ever realizing we’re talking about effects without ever dealing with causes. So if by some miracle, some consensus is formed that allows us to move forward, we’ve only won a temporary reprieve as the original cause still has not been addressed.

And the original cause is almost always us. Humans. We continue to push back the edges of what we know about the universe and yet spend so little time and attention on understanding ourselves and how we interact with one another. My daughter has already been taught the basics of economics in 1st Grade (she was explaining this to me just the other day), and yet she’ll probably never receive any in-depth instruction in school about:

  • Critical thinking
  • Conflict resolution
  • Effective personal communication
  • Developing emotional intelligence

…suffice to say, the list goes on. We have an educational system that’s main avowed purpose is to turn out the next generation of workers, when what we need is the next generation of decent human beings. Again, I don’t have all the answers, but I know enough to see that things can’t continue as they are.

On a personal note, my goal (no, not a resolution!) is to write twelve posts about these sorts of topics in 2015, one each month. I hope you’ll check back in occasionally.

Inauthentic but genuine: my take on a recipe for chili powder

Introduction

(if you are not interested in the how’s and why’s, you can just jump to the recipe.)chili powder

My parents are from out west and so I grew up eating home-cooked Mexican food. Now with a family of my own, we often do the same — with some differences of course. I’m much more likely to do some research and try to create more authentic dishes than my parents and of course now there is a general focus on fresh, quality ingredients. Back in the ’70s? Not so much.

Surprisingly though, “authentic” had very little to do with me creating my own chili powder. My first discovery on researching this was that chili powder, like so many “Mexican” dishes in the U.S. has nothing to do with Mexican cuisine. While there are various accounts about who invented it, and I think the best claim for inventing what most of us use goes to one Willie Gebhardt. If you read through that article, you’ll see that chili powder was basically the invention of an German immigrant to America looking for a way to preserve chilies.

First, chili was only a seasonal food during the late 1800s as fresh chilies were not available during the fall and winter months. Moreover, no known method for keeping chilies fresh existed at the time. Although dried chilies were known, they were mostly reconstituted with hot water and then diced and served in the chili. However, their texture was tough and they lost much of their flavor. Fresh chilies were preferred. Willie discovered that if he dried his chili peppers and ground them into a flavoring powder, he could keep the concoction fresh for months at a time.

And so chili powder was born. The current commercial process used to create it is, from what I’ve been able to discover, basically the same – the dried chilies and spices are soaked in a combination of water and alcohol, the liquid is expelled/drained and the cakes of spice mixture are then dried at around 125° F. Now, I’ve made a bit of an amateur study of herbs and the preservation of them (drying, extracts, etc.) and I know that if you’re trying to preserve as much of the original flavor as possible, you don’t soak plant-based materials in liquid, remove the liquid, and then subject it to more heat. What’s left over has as much in common with unprocessed dried chilies as an old tea bag has with unused loose tea. So I set about to see if I could make something better.

It should be noted that, according to some websites, the U.S. government has standards for the labeling of what can be sold as chili powder. Unfortunately, with the many reports of lead and salmonella contamination of commercial chili powders, I don’t think that makes me feel any safer. One of my goals in this was to use as many whole, unprocessed ingredients as possible, as that’s honestly the best way to avoid many contamination issues. Can spices, even whole ones, still contain bad stuff? You bet. But I try to buy from trustworthy sources and I know nothing I do in the processing of these ingredients is going to introduce something I don’t want.

In addition to the above reasons, there were a few other factors that served as inspiration for this recipe.

  1. I wanted a lot of flavor and not crazy amounts of heat. This was both to make this as general purpose as possible and to meet the needs of several “baby-mouths” in my family. If you want more heat, you can either use different peppers or just add however much cayenne powder you wish. But the focus of this is really to create layers of flavor.
  2. I’m not a huge fan of Indian cuisine, but I love the culture that’s built up around it – particularly the masala. These spice mixtures, while sold here in the U.S. in bland plastic containers with words like “Authentic!” printed on it, are in India all different based on geography and family. The preparation and ingredients are matters of familial, ethnic, and regional identity and in chili powder, I saw the opportunity to create essentially the North American version of that. So experiment with what I have outlined below and make it your own.
  3. In that same spirit, I’ve outlined a “base” recipe and then highlight some additional ingredients and preparation steps that you can look at – either to do yourself, or perhaps give you ideas of your own.

JB’s Chili Powder

Ingredients

Where possible, I’ve linked to my usual sources for ingredients, but please feel free to buy from wherever you want. Also, be aware that when I make this, it’s usually a batch four times as big, so some of my sources are geared to much larger amounts than called for in this recipe.

Do me this favor: do not buy spices from the supermarket. Even with whole spices, sitting forever on shelves under bright fluorescents in clear bottles is not a good thing. If you have access to a Latin market, try there as there will be enough turnover to help ensure some sort of freshness — otherwise, the Internet is your friend.

Chilieschilies

Lightly roast the chiles over lowish heat, being careful not to burn them. The ancho in particular may require a little bit longer. You’re trying to bake as much of the moisture out of them as possible (yes, dried chilies can and do still have moisture in them). What I often do is after grilling dinner, when the coals have burned down a bit, I’ll stick the chilies in — making sure that they are only receiving indirect heat. If you have some wood chips or there was already wood chunks on the coals, all the better in my opinion. Of course, if you hate fire and fun, all of this can be done in an oven too (but not the microwave for goodness’ sake!).

How you do you know when they’re done? Well, this is one of the other ways my recipe goes off the beaten path. Google “DIY chili powder” and almost all of them will tell you to remove the stem and seeds before you roast them. I, of course, laugh at convention – and with good reason. By keeping the stem and seeds, you have essentially a deflated balloon. When the pepper is placed on the heat, the air and water that is left inside starts expanding and re-inflating the pepper. You can see exactly what I mean in this video:

Ideally, slow roast the peppers (with smoke added if you wish) at about 250° F for about 5 minutes and then find a little bit of direct heat right over the coals (or in a skillet on high if doing this the not-fun, no-fire way) and keep turning them until they start to inflate and remove them before there’s any burning. Seriously – these are for the most part mild peppers, but you do not want to breath in smoke from burning chilies. BAD IDEA.

When done, the chilies will have softened to an almost leather-like consistency. Remove from heat and layout in a thin layer on a cookie sheet or cooling rack to cool down. As soon as they are safe to touch, remove the stem and split open to remove seeds BUT FIRST, get some gloves.

Remember, you’re not just touching peppers as you would when cutting fresh ones, you’re digging around, pulling off stems and removing seeds. Even with relatively mild peppers like these, your day will go very quickly south if you touch anywhere on your body with hands covered in chili oil. You’ve been warned! Oh, and if using the chipotle peppers, get to them as soon as you can. As they have already been roasted and smoked, when they cool off, they’ll basically be as hard as rocks. At the very least, get them de-stemmed and split in half as soon as you can – the seeds can come out after they’ve cooled more if necessary.

If you want more heat in the final chili powder, I suggest going with hotter peppers but still taking the seeds out – yes that is where the heat is, but ground up in a powder (if you can get them ground up at all) it adds an unpleasant bitterness.

For now, hold off on grinding the  peppers — we’re going to get a little help with that first. But do check to see if there are any that aren’t quite crisp all the way around yet and finish them off in a toaster oven or on the stove top. We need them as crispy as possible without actually being burnt.

Spice mix and preparationcumin

As the peppers are completed, put them aside and then assemble the following:
(and yes – these are, unless otherwise specified, all by weight, not by volume – trust me, this works much better)

Possible additions (I actually use all of these)

Before the next step, I advise toasting the cumin seeds and then, along with the sea salt and the cacao nibs, run them through the food processor, a separate small spice grinder, or a mortar and pestle (if you have one …which you totally should). Otherwise they may be a little too chunky to break down.

Bringing it all together

Now, some people use dedicated spice grinders for this and ol’ Willie Gebhardt used a coffee grinder for his, but I prefer the food processor. Most spice grinders are too small for this type of application and electric coffee grinders (yes, even the nice burr ones) tend to overheat oil-rich items (especially sticky, soft, dried peppers), imparting a scorched taste to the finished product. The food processor with its big chopping blade and ample space will work much better.

So go ahead and put your de-stemmed and de-seeded peppers in the food processor, and start pulsing the blade. After a few pulses, add about half the spice mixture above and pulse on and off for about 30 seconds. Now add the rest of the spice mixture and continue pulsing for another 30 to 60 seconds until the mixture is as fine a powder as it will get and well mixed. The idea is that the spices themselves will help break down the chilies.

Now you can go ahead and stop there if you wish, but if you want to help make sure the powder is as fine as possible, what I do is put it, in small batches, through a strainer-sifter. Take whatever is left that didn’t go through the sifter and run it through the food processor again (or a smaller spice grinder or a mortar and pestle if you have one …which you totally should). You’ll likely always end up with a few larger flakes rather than a perfectly uniform powder, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The main thing is to make sure all the seeds have been removed, as well as possible, at each step.

Storage

So we’ve completed this Herculean task of making our own chili powder! Yay! Go us! Now put it in your cupboard and be happy! Wait…

Your cupboard/spice cabinet is in your kitchen, right? Probably not too far away from your stove top, microwave, oven, etc. And there’s probably quite a bit of light in there, huh? For most spices bought from a mega-mart, that’s probably not going to do any more harm to them then has already been done. But this chili powder – it deserves better.

Here’s what we don’t want: light, heat, and air. So we need something preferably opaque, in a stable, cool environment and an air-tight container. Let’s take a page from how you should be treating your coffee: put it in the freezer. In an airtight container in the freezer, this stuff will keep at almost peak freshness for …well, a lot longer than the six months or so that Mr. Gebhardt managed, that’s for sure. And please make sure the container truly is air tight, and the container is non-reactive (so no plastics!). If you take care of it, it will take care of you.

Smoked Sea Salt

smoked sea saltIt hardly seems fit to call this a recipe. It’s just too easy. But since I continue to get questions about it, here you go:

On a large steel cooking sheet or aluminum pan, spread about 2 lbs of coarse sea salt. In your grill or smoker (again, this works really well if you start it after a normal grilling session), add in some wood (presoaked for at least 4 hours in water). I’ve used oak, hickory, maple, apple, cherry, pecan, and mesquite — and various combinations thereof. Put the cookie sheet with the salt on the grill, close the grill and go do something else for 20 minutes. Come back and with a metal or silicone spatula, stir the salt around. If you need to add more wood, do that too. Now go do something else for about 20 to 30 minutes. Or an hour. It doesn’t really matter at this point. It’s not like you can burn the salt after all! Basically, get it as smokey as you want and bam! You’re done!

So what to do with it after that? Well, you can use it in a chili powder recipe obviously. And it makes a great fancy finishing salt. On top of a quality dark chocolate, it’s pretty much divine, or a couple of grains added to a dish of ice cream with a chocolate or butterscotch sauce will rock your socks off. Basically, whatever you want. My family likes it so much, we bought one of these and put it, fresh ground, on pretty much everything — but especially on popcorn with a little of that True Lime I mentioned above. Best. Popcorn. Ever.

10 Ways to Celebrate Kylee Lane’s Birthday

*Revised, extended, and made increasingly silly for 2012*

As I did with birthday posts for Ruth / ChulhuChick and Jess / Toasterlicious,  I’ve done the same for my Made-Up Pseudo-Sibling (#MUPS) Kylee Lane. As today is her birthday, here are some ways to appropriately mark the occasion:

1.SOAP

Well, you could order some soap, but hopefully you already have some, because it is literally the best, most incredible stuff ever made. No, that’s not hyperbole, I used “literally” correctly – I’m just stating the straightforward truth. Even better, don’t order any right now (unless you really need some), as she is spending her birthday making soap for everyone already. But after the holidays, put in an order. The geeky soaps are fun, but really, you’re doing yourself a disservice if you haven’t tried any of her all natural, organic soaps or her shaving soaps or shampoo. Because most commercial scents actual make me nauseous because they smell so bad, I used to buy as many unscented products as I could find. Buying from Kylee now, I not only get soap that’s good for me, but often times it smells good enough to eat. But as Kylee always warns — DON’T EAT THE SOAP!

2. STAR TREK

Watch some Star Trek. Even better, spend several hours figuring out how to convert where you live into a replica of the Enterprise. You get extra bonus points if you do the planning while watching Star Trek: TOS on a used projector you picked up on the cheap. Extra bonus points if you figure out how to install some Jeffries tubes. Extra, extra bonus points if you know why they are called Jeffries tubes. Extra, extra, extra bonus points if you’re somehow watching it on VHS or watching Star Trek: The Motion Picture on LaserDisc. Creating a holodeck is optional, as is creating a working transporter. If you get the transporter working, please let either Kylee or myself know — we need it to ensure a constant flow of goods in the soap / cookies / chili powder economy in which we now live.

Oh, and if you don’t have any Star Trek, then yes, Star Wars may be substituted as she loves it as well. However, I just have to ask “What the hell is wrong with you!?” as Star Trek is all on Netflix now. So in summary: if you’re not watching Star Trek, you’re lazy and can’t be bothered. Just saying.

3. TATTOOS

Don’t get a tattoo. Yes, Kylee has tons of very beautiful tattoos and each has a story behind it. You should only get a tattoo if you have a story to tell. 🙂 However, today would be a great day to think about what kind of tattoo you’d like to get — as long as you’re comfortable knowing that it won’t be as cool as hers. Getting a tattoo of her would be sort of cool, but also creepy (so I’ve been told…repeatedly), so probably best to avoid.

4. ZOMBIES

Put together your zombie/killer robot apocalypse survival kit and go through some practice drills.  Kylee knows something like this is coming and she’s ready, so we should all be ready too — there will be a lot of downsides to such an event, but the fact Kylee will undoubtedly still be around and making soap makes it seem like a slightly less horrible catastrophe.Who ever knew washing off after a zombie attack could be so enjoyable!

Extra bonus points if, after watching Star Trek, you watch some of The Walking Dead. Minus 1,000,000,000 points though if you mention anything about the current season to her. She waits until the season is over so she can watch the whole thing at once in one big zombiegasm. [Note: “zombiegasm” may be one of the single most disturbing things I’ve ever concocted and Ruth may never forgive me for it, but trust me…for Kylee, a zombiegasm is just pure, clean, geeky fun. Really.]

5.DUDES

If you are William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, or Michael Dorn, give Kylee a call and wish her a happy birthday. Really, it’s the least you could do. Extra bonus points if you can get the ghost of James Doohan to materialize, as he looked in 1968, and wish her a happy birthday. She has sort of a thing for him. But who doesn’t. Oh, and if you’re are Rick Moranis, Kylee would like to…well, the less said about that the better. Let’s just say she’d be open to a number of offers.

scotty_bday_question

6. FIGHT CLUB

Don’t talk about Fight Club. Crap. I just broke this one, didn’t I? *hangs head in shame*

…moving on…

7. IDEAS

Live your life today remembering that ideas really are bullet-proof. Extra bonus points if you remember this tomorrow and every day after. This also obviously means that if you have lots of ideas, you can create a bullet-proof vest of ideas. (this is only guaranteed if the bullets are made out of ideas as well. Just so you know.)

Also remember a good idea is better than a belief, and no one ever made a mistake by coming up with a new idea.

We are the music makers… and we are the dreamers of dreams

8.CREATE

Create something. Doesn’t even really matter what. Just engage in the act of creation. I don’t believe there is a single more defining characteristic to Kylee than her need to create. Whether it’s making soap, creating custom stamps with her husband Rory, or using salvaged library catalog cards (and the card catalogs themselves!) , she takes the ordinary and makes it extraordinary. We should all try to do the same – the world would be a better place.

9. LOVE

Spend time with your loved ones. This may seem rather general, but honestly, Kylee derives more joy out of being around those she loves than anyone I’ve ever met. All the hard work and everything she does begins and ends with her family.

10. LIVE

Eat some frosting, drink some wine…in other words engage in some harmless hedonism. Everything in moderation — even (and maybe especially) moderation. And ENJOY it. That’s the key. Take whatever is in front of you and really, truly, deeply enjoy it, experience it, and revel in it. That’s life and it ain’t for the weak hearted. I can’t think of anything more Kylee than that.

Extra bonus points: Buy a mansion (you can either literally buy a mansion or just try for something everyone will think you’re crazy for doing, and then try and do it anyway)

Or if you prefer, simply wish her a happy birthday . . . but with all these other options, that just seems kind of lame.

Extra, Extra bonus points: Write nice things about her and make her blush and giggle (which is absolutely priceless to see in person!)

Oh, and a warning — you lose points and possibly forfeit if you 1) sing her Happy Birthday 2) tell her she can’t do something 3) violate Wheaton’s Rule

10 Ways to Celebrate @Toasterlicious’ Birthday

And now to complete the trilogy (bet you didn’t even know it was a trilogy, huh?!) – I bring you 10 ways to celebrate the birthday of my Made-Up Pseudo-Sibling (#MUPS) Jess (@toasterlicious). As I did with my other #MUPS Kylee Lane and the ever amazing Ruth/CthulhuChick, I’ve offered some ways to appropriately mark this happy occasion:

1. Read something good. Shakespeare would be the obvious choice, but by no means the only one. Savor the words. Think about what you’re reading. Immerse yourself in it. Jess does that sort of stuff all the time. (Optional) Either write about what your reading or talk about it with a friend. Or, if you’re very literal in your interpretations and have no new obvious insights, talk about it with an enemy.

2. Read something bad. How can you have good without bad, right? Well, it’s not like we’ll ever know —  we’re not in any danger of running out of bad writing anytime soon. However, reading bad literature does two things: 1) helps us realize what makes bad writing really, awfully, horribly bad; (Hint: adverbs) 2) it allows us to post frakking hilarious YouTube videos about how bad it actually was. Such as this, this, and this. (Oxford comma usage just for Jess! Doing it when it wasn’t necessary — well, that was just for me because I’m a smart-ass.) [Editorial Note: There used to be videos at the end of those links and now there are not, but trust me when I say that they were amazing. No, seriously, trust me.]

3. Go to grad school. I mean, it must be really cool, right? All these brilliant, smart people seem to do it, so hell, we should all probably do it. *checks price of tuition* *checks bank account* Hmmm… maybe that’s a bit too much. Instead of *actually* going to grad school, how about just for today, you work twice as long as you normally would (doing your boss’ work in addition to your own would be the most authentic approach), go home and splurge with ramen, eggs and toast, or (not “AND”) some other entree that can be had for less than $2, and then sit around your apartment having an existential crisis vis-à-vis why the hell are you doing this, what the hell are you going to do with your life, how your entire approach to your work is never going to be understood by those other idiots in the department and why the hell can’t you have a life.

On second thought, let’s leave this for the folks who can actually handle it. Instead, just drive by a local university and throw some food at the grad students. One or two might follow you home, but it’s worth the risk.

4. Sketch something. Let your mind go and your pencil will follow 🙂 As her made-up pseudo older brother, I have encouraged Jess in many things (not hard to do, she is honestly one of the single most intelligent, capable people I’ve ever met — basically my encouragement usually boils down to “Hey, all that stuff you’re doing? That’s awesome! Go do some more of that!”) but I have to say the one I think I’ve enjoyed encouraging her about the most is her drawings.  Jess continues to protest to this day that she can’t draw. I continue to tell her that’s bullshit. My dream is that someday she and I will collaborate on what will possibly be the funniest and most disturbing children’s book ever created. We’ll both write, she’ll illustrate, and possibly we would be the only ones laughing at our awesome absurdity, but I’m telling you it would be EPIC! I could point to many examples of her drawing, but that would only make her uncomfortable, so I’ll just highlight three favorites:

5. Write some crazy notes in the margin of a book you’re reading. Again, Jess does this all the time. In fact, this may be one of the reasons she is pursuing a life in academia — just so she can get paid for writing in books for the rest of her life. Extra bonus points if you go back later and have no idea what the hell you meant when you wrote whatever you did. That’s how the pros roll.

6. Watch some Battlestar Galactica…or Big Bang Theory, or really anything sufficiently nerdy. Or just anything you can be sufficiently nerdy about really. Again, if you’re looking for extra bonus points, write up the episode as you’re watching it. As an example of what you’re aiming for, may I present Jess’ “transcript” (ironic air quotes hers, not mine) of the “Happily Ever After” episode of LOST,

7. Wear a nerdy t-shirt. Again, this can be something universally regarded as nerdy (like this or this) or just something nerdy you enjoy. Also accepted: wearing a costume (“Post-apocalyptic Dorothy“). For this one, extra bonus points can only be earned by creating your own nerdy t-shirt, preferably with a partner in crime.

8. Play a video game. You all have a lot of latitude here — everything from Portal to Skyrim. BUT YOU MUST JUMP A LOT. And push all the buttons, because you never know what might happen. It is preferred that you also worry about how well you are playing the game, despite the fact that flies in the face of why most people play games. If possible, choose a game that is multiplayer or co-op, because that will be much more entertaining to your friends.

9. Use interesting swears. A lot. “Frak” is an obvious choice, but really just let your creativity fly here. Try for something on par with “blistering fuckweasels.” (which is indeed a Jess-ism) Bonus points for using them in insults when talking to your brain on Twitter, e.g. “twat waffle.”

10. Care about things, people, animals…just something. Even when it hurts, or is difficult, or other people don’t care about them. I think one of the most important things I’ve learned from Jess is that in a world that constantly seeks to define us, the best way to fight back is to define ourselves through what we’re passionate about. And if that’s not a central tenet of what it means to not only be a geek, but just a quality person in general, I don’t know what is.

Or you can just simply wish her a happy birthday. 🙂

(there is actually an 11th way to celebrate, and it is a ritual that is shared with observances of Ruth’s birthday — If you are of a persuasion to appreciate it, spend a few minutes in quiet meditation and contemplation over this: bit.ly/dropthetowel. Personally I don’t get it, but I’m told this is of almost religious significance.)

(Update 2015: And because there is no gag I love like a running gag, here’s the 12th way to celebrate Jess’ birthday: get drunk, read Shakespeare, and make a video of the proceedings)

10 Ways To Celebrate @CthulhuChick’s Birthday

(2013 Revised Edition! *grin*)

In honor of Ruth’s (aka @cthulhuchick’s) birthday, I thought I’d put together a list of ways you can celebrate this momentous event.

1. Learn how to tell yourself yes. Hey, listen – life can sometimes be as bleak and desperate as being in an unairconditioned car on a DC Metro train in August while you’re surrounded by sweaty, lost tourists and angry commuters. You can go your whole life hearing “No” from other people, so take some time to tell yourself “Yes.” Yes, you can learn to be a GM. Yes, you can get a MLS degree while working full time. Yes, you can take time out for yourself and those you love. In short: Yes. It’s a pretty great word.

2. Read some Lovecraft! Seriously, you really should have done this already, so we’re letting you off easy with this one. And as Ruth is always one step ahead of the rest of us, she’s already provided the easiest way to do it — just download from here and start reading already!

3. Enjoy the light by never losing sight of the darkness. Many folks think that being “happy” means ignoring the hurts and pains life throws your way. One of the many things I admire about Ruth is her ability to not shy away from those things, and I think by embracing them as truly being part of herself, her happiness is a truer, more authentic thing.

4. Begin to worship her as a deity. What to do if you’re already worshiping Ruth as a deity? Well, than you need to have a high priestess to ensure the rituals are kept and practiced correctly and that the offerings and sacrifices are performed. But you don’t want just anyone off the street — this is an important job! Personally, my wife and I decided it was best to procreate and have our daughter be our High Priestess of Ruth. The young high priestess is well along in her training and already firmly believes that Ruth makes all sorts of things, like clouds.

My daughter (a.k.a Thing2) several years ago with her first Cthluhu (named “Clue”)

5. Game on. Whether it be an RPG or some Mass Effect — or anything else really — play some games. Done by youself, it can help relieve stress and provide an outlet for frustrations. When done with other people, you can make friends or maybe just make better friendships.

6. If you are of a persuasion to appreciate it, spend a few minutes in quiet meditation and contemplation over this: bit.ly/dropthetowel. If you are an overlapping or different persuasion, do the same with this picture.

7. Give gifts that show some thought behind them. Through Ruth, both my children have had their horizons expanded just by knowing her. But for my daughter especially, Ruth in her role as “Elder Godmother” has bestowed a number of gifts that took my daughter’s imagination to new and interesting places. The gifts themselves are very nice, but the thought and love evident in them is what makes them special.

Ruth; gift-giving
Ruth giving Thing2 a present for her 5th birthday. Thing2 proceeded to rope all of her family into playing many multiple times (and we’ve had a ball doing it) 🙂

8. Support a library, a comic book shop, or some other endangered home of awesomeness. As homes of esoteric and arcane knowledge, this is just a good idea to begin with but these types of place also serve as places of worship for all things Ruth.

9. Enjoy and share whatever you’re geeky about. Above all else, this sums Ruth up as well as anything, and whether it’s SPAAAAAAAAAACE!, archiving old books, playing games, Cthulhu, reading both bad and good fanfic, or some lesser amusement, half the fun should be in sharing it with others.

10. Every day try and find something cute (usually a dog works well in this role, though bats, llamas, and bunnies are all acceptable), something weird (with Ruth, this really can be almost anything), and/or something you’re not even quite sure how to categorize. Push your boundaries. Explore. Then come back to Twitter and let us know what you found. 😀

Extra bonus points: Plan a trip to Innsmouth

Or if you prefer, simply wish her a happy birthday . . . but with all these other options, that just seems kind of lame.

Extra, Extra bonus points: Write a silly blog post about her birthday.

I WIN!

What I’ve learned as a husband and father

Yesterday, my wife (@KatMByrne for those of you on Twitter) and I celebrated our 17th anniversary of being married and a total of 18 years being together — and today is Father’s Day. I’d given some thought about writing a mushy tribute to her, but realized that didn’t feel right. And then I realized why — who I am today as a person is the best tribute to her there is because in large part, she deserves a lot of the credit. I also realized that my kids deserve credit as well for teaching me so many things. My family has made me a better person over the years, and so I figured I’d share what being a husband and a father has taught me. This is, by no means, saying you have to have a spouse or kids to be complete as a person – it’s just the only thing that worked for me.

I’ll start off with an anecdote that sums it up in a nutshell. Four years after my own wedding, my sister was getting married and my far-flung relatives came to attend. One of them was my dad’s oldest sister Yvonne (usually just “Aunt Y” to all of us). She was 13 years older than my dad, and as with most of us in the Byrne family, she tended to speak her mind but loved us all very much. So while she was in town, my wife Katherine and I volunteered to take her around town and ended up going to Great Falls Park outside DC. There we walked and talked for a bit, and at one point talking about weddings, family, and my own marriage, my aunt turned to me and said “Jason, I’m glad you found Kathy. Marriage has been good for you — you’re not such a little shit anymore.” I would have been insulted I guess, except for the fact that I immediately knew it to be true. I wasn’t such a little shit anymore. What Aunt Y really meant was “Jason, being married to Kathy has given you confidence and made you happy,” because frankly being unhappy and not confident generally translates as “being a little shit.”

On the road to not being such a little shit . . .

Which brings me to the first thing I learned:

If you’re going to get married, make sure it’s to someone who helps you become the person you want to be.

Notice I did not say “makes you the person you want to be” or “helps you become a better person.” Those are quite different and/or open to interpretation. I also purposely didn’t say “going to be in a relationship” — marriage is different, often times because it isn’t until we’ve dated other people that we have any idea who the hell we even are or what we want. But “marriage” in this case is just shorthand for “long-term committed relationship between two adults,” which is all it really ever is, despite what meaning people keep trying to ascribe to it. Before I met my wife, I tended to date women of a certain personality type – you might call it “impassioned”, many of my friends called it “crunchy-granola eco-fem-nazis from hell,” but what it came down to was I kept picking women who were passionate about many of the same issues I was. We had great discussions and even greater arguments and I was miserable most of the time. And then I met Kathy and in addition to a number of other things, she was a passionate advocate for me, and suddenly I was happy.

The key here is that I believe the best marriages are based on not only the sum being greater than the individual parts, but that each partner in the relationship allows opportunities and offers support to the other in terms of becoming the kind of person they want to be. Luckily I had good role models with my own parents. Neither of them would have accomplished all that they have without the support of the other. Which brings me to the next item…

It’s a cliché because it’s true: there’s no more important aspect of being in a relationship with someone than communication

This one I think is not only true for marriages and relationships with significant others, it’s true for every relationship we have as adults, including with our children. When you’re growing up, you learn to take different types of communication for granted. You interact with your parents and authority figures one way, peers another, etc. And then you go out into the great wide world and discover that those types of communication don’t work anymore — either because you or the other person learned bad habits growing up or neither one of you has adapted to the fact that part of getting to know anyone is discovering how to communicate with them. [Note – “communicate” does NOT mean “talk” — communication implies listening as much as talking, and being in tune with each other’s verbal AND nonverbal cues]

Growing up as an introvert with social anxiety, I was not a natural communicator. Growing up as the youngest in a family of over-achieving Type A personalities, I also did not communicate well with my close friends and family about what I was thinking or feeling. That’s a lot of bottling up to deal with. As I came to adulthood, I tended to communicate too much, too fast in my romantic relationships and without having bothered to learn they liked to communicate. The result? Clingy, needy Jason who then got hurt when things tended to go off the rails and didn’t understand why. The first three years my wife and I were together were wonderful, but it also tested each of us as we came to accommodate how each other communicated (especially during arguments!). At the end of that, not only did we have a stronger relationship, we had each undergone significant personal growth (which as distastefully new age-y as that sounds, really is the best term for it.)

Don’t forget the kids

This was the moment I realized I *was* a dad . . . (the day Thing1 was born - that's my finger)

We ended up not having kids until almost 8 years into our marriage for a number of reasons, and that had both pros and cons, but the biggest bonus was the foundation it provided once we did have children. If you think communicating with a significant other is tough, try throwing in keeping that going while dealing with parental roles, finances, logistics of a busy calendar out of your control, and learning to communicate with your own kids. And if you don’t think you have to learn how to communicate with your own kids, you’re crazy.

Looking back on it now, it becomes pretty evident that at least part of human’s extended childhood (in relation to other mammals) is at least partly due to not only them needing to learn, but the parents needing to as well. It starts off pretty simply – sleeping, eating, and diapers are the basis for all initial communication. Then once the “Terrible Twos” hit (usually it seems actually at about the 18 month mark) you get a communication crisis — and the cause of the so-called Terrible Twos. They’ve been soaking up an incredible amount of information on EVERYTHING and suddenly lightning strikes and they want to start communicating and by extension taking some measure of control of their environment. The cosmic joke is on all of us though, as they usually can’t even speak worth a damn at that point. So you have this widely exploding intelligence trapped behind poor muscle control and a lack of syntax — and thus the tantrums…and really, who can blame then? If no one listened to you and you couldn’t express yourself, you’d be throwing tantrums as well (you know, like Sarah Palin).

So what I learned early on is even when your kids are newborns, talk to them like they’re more than just a cute blob – talk to them like they are human beings — not only is that just a good habit to get into, but you’ll actually be teaching them how to communicate. As some of you who have met my kids can attest to – they can talk in a manner well beyond their calendar years.

Now my oldest is nine and my youngest is almost three, so I don’t have any pearls of wisdom to offer on teenagers – and at that point, you’ve either taught them well or you haven’t, so there may be no special trick to offer. The only salient advice I have — and this applies to any child — is don’t talk down to them. Simplify only as absolutely needed to make yourself understood. If you talk to your kids like their idiots, all you get are idiot kids.

With great power, there must also come great responsibility…

Early pic of Things 1 & 2

While this one sounds like strictly a parenting tip, but it applies to relationships with spouses/significant others as well. For kids, it’s pretty straight forward. You are the parent first. That doesn’t preclude the idea of being their friend to, but that can never come before being their parent. Many of the baby boomer generation were all about having a different kind of relationship with their children than their parents had with them, which is fine in theory, but too often resulted in parents giving up the mantle of authority in favor of warm fuzzies. Now as a rampant liberal, why am I in favor of being an “authoritative parent?” (and not “authoritarian” as I had originally written – Thanks @markzero!) I sure wasn’t when I was a kid. My parents were notorious for being much stricter with my sister and I then my friend’s parents, and I hated it. Some of my friends could be out to all hours, had outrageous amounts of things bought for them, and were basically answerable to no one.

But now with years of parenting under my belt, I’ve come to (grudgingly) admit how right my parents were. Because while they were strict, they were also fair, consistent, and reliably communicated expectations to me. Most of all, that structure gave me the freedom to get my own feet under me and later gave me the tools to stand on my own. Without the self-discipline they instilled in me, I don’t believe much of what I love about my life would have been possible. So my model with my own children has been a sort of benevolent co-dictator (with my wife of course). We don’t control every aspect of what our kids do, but what we do ask (and we still do ask politely — another lesson for the kids), we expect to basically be taken as an order. Orders can be questioned within reason and clarification and alternatives can always be suggested, but we expect our kids to do what we’ve required of them. This perhaps sounds tough to some, but the importance of the heading comes into play here — when you yield great power over someone, you have an equally great responsibility to exercise it well.

In a romantic relationship, it’s a slightly different perspective, but the same general concept. Any relationship like that should ideally be one of equals. The phrase “wearing the pants in the family” is one of my pet peeves and to me underlines much of what can go wrong in a relationship. Despite what you may have heard, in a healthy relationship there is not a “top” or “bottom” to use rather direct phrasing. Two much better phrases come to my mind when it comes to relationships:

From each according to his ability, to each according to his need. – Karl Marx

Be liberal in what you accept, and conservative in what you send. – Jon Postel (Postel’s Law)

The first is straight up Marxism, and a healthy relationship between two people is about the only place it can actually work 😉 The second is from Jon Postel, one of the founders of the Internet, talking about best common practice in network communication – but it applies remarkably well to many types of communication. To tie it in to what I was discussing earlier – ideally in a relationship, each of you finds that right balance between self-identity and serving the common purpose of the relationship — there’s no room for power plays or one seeking to push authority over the other. And that also applies to how you communicate – be liberal in what you accept (meaning you shouldn’t place limits on how you’re communicated with) and conservative in what you send (meaning think before you speak).

And that brings me to the end of what is likely an unnecessarily long piece — but these are just some of the things I’ve learned from being both a husband and father. As I said at the beginning, I don’t believe you have to be in a committed relationship or have kids to be a complete person, but I do know that for me, I didn’t become the person I wanted to be until I had. Many people probably learn this stuff in other ways or don’t learn it even after having been a spouse or parent, but I thank my wife and kids for teaching me.

Chocolate Chip Cookie Ice Cream (no dough!)

Photo of Chocolate Chunk Cookie Ice Cream with ingredients in background

Photo of Chocolate Chunk Cookie Ice Cream with ingredients in backgroundWhen inspired to create a new recipe, it is often as a result of finding something in an existing recipe or product that doesn’t quite work for me. For example, my Yeast-Raised Waffles were the result of my father’s use of a similar recipe from the Fannie Farmer Cookbook when I was growing up and me thinking they were almost perfect and then setting about to make them absolutely perfect once I had my own damn waffle iron 🙂

This recipe had similar origins, but in this case, it was dissatisfaction with a product not a recipe – namely Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Ice Cream. Wildly popular since I believe Ben & Jerry’s first introduced it some time in the ’80s, I’d always liked it, but it fell short in a couple areas. First, while it is tasty, its blobs of dough mixed in a vanilla base are like little oases of flavor in an otherwise unremarkable sea of vanilla-ness. Secondly, in the many imitators and commercial versions out there now, more often than not you get low-quality vanilla ice cream mixed with low-quality cookie “dough” (sarcastic air quotes most definitely called for). What to do?

And then it hit me. Why add dough to the ice cream when you could make the ice cream TASTE like the cookie? And not like cookie dough, but like an actual baked cookie! Because my daughter has an egg allergy, I decided to work off a Philadelphia-style ice cream recipe (made without eggs) and why look any further than Alton Brown’s “Serious Vanilla Ice Cream“? I sat down and compared the ingredient lists of that ice cream and my favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe (to be published later!). I then did a little research. Then scribbled some notes. Then I did a lot of thinking – taste testing in my head as it were.

I wanted something that had the buttery richness of the chocolate chip cookie dough and the toffee notes from the brown sugar. I wanted something where the walnuts (a requirement of my cookie recipe, but pecans may be substituted if you absolutely must) had that oven-baked texture of a nut that hitched a ride on a cookie on a trip through an oven. I wanted big, assertive chocolate chunks – just like I use in my cookies (“chips” are for wusses. Chocolate chunks are definitely the way to go).

After all that, I sketched out how I thought the recipe should go and have made it a couple of times now with surprisingly few alterations. What I bring you now is the result of all this research and experimentation. I still consider this recipe a “draft” and I know there are probably better ways to do this, but figured I’d put it out in the world and hopefully inspire someone to improve upon it. If anyone tries this, please let me know how it turns out and if you have any suggestions!

Chocolate Chip Chunk Cookie Ice Cream (no dough!)

By Jason Byrne,
partially based on Alton Brown’s Serious Vanilla Ice Cream recipe

Prep Time: Ten hours
Cooking Time: Around an hour

Ingredients

  • 2 Tbsp. Salted butter
  • 2 Tbsp. sugar (white granulated or I often use a Turbinado sugar)
  • 1 1/2 cup whole milk
  • 1 1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
  • 1/2 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup white granulated sugar
  • 1/2 tsp. real vanilla extract
  • 1/2 tsp. cocoa powder
  • 1 cup candied walnuts, broken or chopped into pieces (see recipe below)
  • 1 cup chocolate chunks (I prefer Baker’s brand)

Combine candied walnuts and chocolate chunks in a small bowl and put in freezer.

In a sauté pan, heat 2 tablespoons of sugar on moderately high heat in a heavy-bottomed 2-quart or 3-quart saucepan. As the sugar begins to melt, stir vigorously. As soon as the sugar comes to a boil, stop stirring but keep moving around pan gently. As soon as all of the sugar has melted and turned dark amber in color, add 2 tablespoons of the salted butter to the pan. Whisk until the butter has melted and as much of the butter has become incorporated as possible. Now, because of the proportions, this will not come together like a regular caramel sauce and there may be little bits of melted better that refuse to mix in with the sugar. This is totally okay, as in addition to caramel notes, we’re also looking for the butter to brown a slight bit. Keep on low heat and while keeping it all in motion, add the milk and cream. If caramel bits are not melting, you can bump up the heat a little. Now add the dark brown and white granulated sugar, stirring until well combined. Add the vanilla extract and the cocoa powder.

Adjust heat to medium. Attach a frying or candy thermometer to inside of pan. (If you do not have a thermometer, bring the mixture just barely to a simmer. As soon as you see a bubble hit the surface, remove it from the heat. Do not let it boil) Stirring occasionally, bring the mixture to 170 degrees F. Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly. Pour mixture into lidded container and refrigerate mixture overnight to mellow flavors and texture.

Process mixture in ice cream freezer according to unit’s instructions. The mixture will not freeze hard in the machine. Once the volume has increased by 1/2 to 3/4 times, and reached a soft serve consistency, spoon the mixture back into a lidded container. Add frozen candied walnuts pieces and chocolate chunks to mix and quickly and thoroughly incorporate into the ice cream. The longer it takes, the worse it is for the ice cream. Once everything is incorporated, seal container and harden in the freezer at least 1 hour before serving.

The result?

Because this is a Philly-style ice cream rather than a French-style (made with egg yolks and first cooked as a custard), the ice cream itself is a little lighter tasting than some traditional ice creams, but with so many developed and complex flavors, it really hits your tastebuds. You could modify a French-style recipe and do this, but with all the other flavors going on, I think it might end up to be almost too rich tasting. What started out as necessity because of my daughter’s allergy ended up actually being my preference. I love serendipity in cooking!

Instead of whole chocolate chunks, you can go for smaller chips or chop up the chunks in a food processor a bit before mixing in. The candied walnuts bring additional “cookie” flavors as well as added texture.

While still undeniably ice cream, because of all those cooked butter and sugar flavor notes, you really do end up with something that tastes like a baked cookie. And not just in dribs and drabs, but with every spoonful.

As stated earlier, this is a draft recipe and probably will (and should) be revised a bit. But even in this fairly initial state, the resulting ice cream is one of my favorites.


Candied Walnuts

  • 1/4 cup unsalted butter
  • 1 cup walnut halves
  • 1/4 cup packed brown sugar

Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the walnuts and cook, stirring, until golden brown and toasted, 3 minutes. Add the sugar and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Transfer to a piece of waxed paper to cool.

Certain ingredients are magic

Many things go into a successful dish – the techniques chosen for the preparation, the execution of the preparation, the quality of the ingredients and the ingredients themselves. However, there are some ingredients that can not only raise a rather good dish to the level of the sublime, they can sometime even rescue an only so-so meal and make it something special.

This is a very subjective list – crafted from my own rather warped experience and tastes, but I would love to hear what other ingredients people use that they regard the same way. Okay, here we go:

Top Eleven “Magical” Ingredients:

Why eleven? I wanted to do only ten, but couldn’t choose one of the following to cut, so we have eleven. I apologize to all the OCD folks out there.

11. Smoked paprika

Spanish smoked paprika
Spanish smoked paprika

Think paprika is something to just sprinkle on your Deviled Eggs? A major spice primarily known (and grown) in Hungary and Spain, smoked varieties are usually inspired most strongly by the Spanish variety Pimentón de la Vera – dried via smoking over oak. While some paprika can be on the spicy side, all of the smoked varieties I’ve sampled are usually from the sweeter bell-type peppers. Generally, paprika from the non-spicy peppers is often used merely for color, but the smoked variety is something else entirely.

For its ability to really bring a smooth smokey flavor to dishes, especially those with beef or pork, smoked paprika is a commonly deployed ingredient in my spice arsenal. As with green peppers, it plays well with any number of flavors and the smokiness is a subtle note that brings much depth.

10. Baby spinach

Baby Spinach
Baby Spinach

Growing up, when it came to raw leafy greens, I pretty much ate iceberg lettuce and nothing else. My family had a salad at pretty much 4 out of every 5 meals, and it was almost always iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, and green olives. However, when I was in my teens (during the mid-80s), other varieties started to appear in restaurants with more frequency and then on grocery store shelves. Baby greens of all types – tender, sometimes bitter but with a pleasant astringency were amazing after eating the watery blandness of iceberg so long. But one always stood above the others to me – baby spinach.

Now, I was an odd child (no change since then obviously) who loved cooked spinach (w/ butter, tarragon vinegar, and a dash of salt – Yum!) Anyway, once I tasted raw baby spinach, I started adding it to all sorts of things as a replacement for regular lettuce. My BLT would become a BST and was more delicious for the substitution – something that held true on every sandwich I ever tried it on. Instead of lettuce on my tacos, I had baby spinach. Instead of a garden salad with iceberg lettuce, I’d have a spinach salad w/ roma tomatoes, toasted walnuts, bacon and blue cheese dressed with balsamic vinegar. In case you were wondering, that’s what heaven tastes like.

Trust me – use baby spinach next time you reach for iceberg or romaine. It’s like lettuce, but with flavor!

9. Billington’s Natural Dark Brown Molasses Sugar

Billington's Natural Dark Brown Sugar
Billington’s Natural Dark Brown Sugar

The only brand-specific ingredient on this list. This is a muscovado cane brown sugar from Mauritius – unrefined and rich, complex with wonderful toffee notes. This can be used anywhere you’d use normal brown sugar, and I also use only this (and no white sugar) in my chocolate chip cookies and gingerbread. It’s also great added to bbq sauces and rubs. I know you’re skeptical that any brand or type of brown sugar could be that much different from any other, but this one truly is exceptional.

I used to be able to purchase it from my local supermarket, but they stopped carrying it, so I now go to trusty Amazon to find it.

8. Quality balsamic vinegar (both regular and white)

A bottle of Aceto Balsamico di Modena, aged for eight years.
A bottle of Aceto Balsamico di Modena, aged for eight years.

I’ve long been one to make my own salad dressings (one of the many skills which initially impressed my wife), and that’s when I first started experimenting with different types of vinegar. Apple cider, tarragon, rice wine, etc. — all of them can be handy widgets to keep on hand to tweak a recipe, but my favorite is balsamic vinegar.

So what does it do besides salads? Well, personally, my favorite usage is a splash of olive oil, balsamic and worcestershire sauce mixed together and lightly brushed on steaks and burgers – the sugars in the balsamic richly caramelize and blend with the umami of the steak and worcestershire. Also I suggest adding a bit to any tomato-based sauce, and even as a dessert with ripe strawberries.

Don’t buy the cheap stuff. However, you likely can’t even afford the really good stuff ($150 to $400 a bottle), which is in fact a completely different product than what you usually can buy at the store or even is available at most restaurants. (explanation). So what to do? Well, as with most ingredients, sample as much as you can and buy what you like. Personally I like to have two types on hand – one for the more “bulk” uses like the aforementioned steaks, and something a little more upscale for something like a dessert or where the balsamic is really highlighted as an ingredient – my favorite application would be to lightly dress an Insalata Caprese.

For the “nice” one, look for something like Lucini Gran Riserva Balsamico. For everyday, I recommend either Monari Federzoni Balsamic Vinegar of Modena or Colavita Balsamic Vinegar of Modena.

7. Hollandaise

Hollandaise
Hollandaise – the opposite of pure evil

One of the five “mother sauces” of classic French cuisine, this is something that would entice me to eat shoe leather. An emulsion of egg yolks and butter seasoned with lemon juice (and in my case a pinch of both red and white pepper), it is the difference between Eggs Benedict being transcendent and being something like an Egg McMuffin.If that black, smoking cinder in the movie Time Bandits was “pure evil,” well then hollandaise is its opposite.

In it’s traditional form, it’s the perfect sauce to enhance salmon, asparagus, broccoli, artichokes, and in my opinion pretty much anything else. And as a “mother sauce,” there are countless variations, including my favorite for steaks – Sauce Béarnaise. Indeed, once you master this sauce, the world will beat a path to your door and gifts will be placed at your feet.

…and that’s the trouble. It is notoriously difficult to master using the traditional technique of a double boiler, carefully controlling the heat to melt the butter and not curdling the egg yolks, all the while whisking and whisking and whisking to bring the emulsion together. Variations on this technique all try to make it easier and inevitably fail. Luckily,  along came Julia Child who, like Moses, showed us the promised land – a technique that eschews the snooty, classic French technique for a blender and microwave — and in my opinion turns out a superior product. If you google “julia child blender hollandaise” you will inevitably find many copies of it – I particularly liked this one as it tied in mentions to Julia’s book My Life in France. Only difference in my version is I heat the butter in the microwave instead of a saucepan and instead of black pepper (which has to be a typo), I use the combination of red (cayenne) and white pepper.

6. Salt (in all its various forms)

Salt - a vertitable palette
Salt – a vertitable palette

As I stated at the note at the end of this article, when I was a kid I wasn’t able to smell things very well, so I tended to focus on sweet or salty flavors. My love of salty things has never gone away, but I have learned to be a little more selective about it. I’ve also come to appreciate the different ways salt can play a part in a dish.

At any moment, I probably have between 6 and 8 types of salt in house for cooking. If I could, I’d have even more. And on that note, let me chime in on something: “sea salt” is not in any way healthier than regular iodized table salt. Especially in the quantities you’re consuming in most dishes, it’s chemically identical, except of course for the lack of iodine – so in a way, it’s less healthy for you. The same is true for all those fancy colored salts you see.

So if its all the same, why do I have so many? Well, here’s what I’ve got currently on-hand and what I use it for:

  • Iodized table salt – table use
  • Kosher salt – use whenever I can in cooking (and sometimes in baking) or when large texture crystals are desired
  • Sea salt – almost never use it, though it works well on the edge of a Bloody Mary with fresh ground black pepper.
  • smoked sea salt – this is an all natural product where the salt is actually smoked. Provides a smoky undertone to many dishes, and since it is also a large crystal form, it’s great for display purposes or where you’re looking for the texture.
  • Red Hawaiian sea salt – used as much for display purposes as anything. Quite tasty to have a few grains sprinkled on a dish of vanilla ice cream drizzled with tupelo honey.
  • Popcorn salt – actually rarely use on popcorn, but great for homemade chips and anywhere you want salty taste but very little texture.

While too much salt can be unhealthy, I find that by using the right salt for a dish, I will often use less overall. I also like to use it in unexpected places – like the sprinkling on ice cream drizzled with honey I mentioned above, or most especially anything with chocolate. That thing that salt does to make it a flavor amplifier? Well, with chocolate, the effect is more pronounced and will make your tastebuds stand up at attention. Try it — trust me.

5. Whole Wheat Pastry Flour (aka graham flour)

Whole Wheat Pastry Flour
Whole Wheat Pastry Flour

As brown sugar is also on this list, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I like to bake as well as cook. Indeed, it was  my first love in the kitchen, from the very first time I made cornbread and then chocolate chip cookies at about the age of 4 or 5. I took this pile of  . . . stuff, and by the time I was done, it was something solid and delicious. It seemed like magic, and in many ways, it still does. Generally, bakers are a different class of people than cooks – I think in large part because a lot of the techniques in baking are very different from those in cooking, and the main ingredients are more nuanced but less varied.

Whole wheat pastry flour is one of those nuanced ingredients. It is a whole wheat flour, but is like no whole wheat flour you’ve ever tried.  First, like any pastry flour, it’s lower in protein, which means that it’s not going to give you a crusty bread no matter how much you knead it, but it will give you soft, tender cookies and flaky pie crusts, as well as the world’s best waffles. One of the other things that makes it stand out, is that in traditional whole wheat flour, the three parts of the wheat kernel (bran, germ, and endosperm) are all ground together at the same time, but with whole wheat pastry flour, they’re all ground separately (at different levels of coarseness) and then combined again. This results in a much different flour that in my experience also keeps longer than traditional whole wheat flours (which can go rancid with too much time/heat/etc because of the oil content of the wheat germ.)

I use this for pretty much any soft cookie, muffins, cakes, pancakes, waffles, pastry crusts, biscuits, etc., usually in conjunction with some all-purpose unbleached white flour, but at different ratios than you’d usually use when using both. You can even go 100% whole wheat pastry flour without it tasting like regular 100% whole wheat flour products (i.e. like shag carpeting). One thing to note: “white whole wheat flour” is not the same as “whole wheat pastry flour” – the former has almost twice as much gluten (aka protein) as the latter, and will give you much different results.

4. Thickcut or “country” center cut applewood smoked bacon

BACON!
BACON!

All bacon is good. This is an axiom. However, it is also axiomatic that some types of bacon are better than others. My personal favorite is a thick-cut bacon smoked over applewood available at my local Costco. You bite into this stuff, and it sinks a hook into your brain that never goes away. It IS everything bacon should be. Perfect to cook ahead of time for a BST (see baby spinach above), bacon crumbles for mac and cheese, or I suppose one could just grab a cooked strip out of the fridge at midnight and eat it there in the kitchen where you’re standing in your underwear. I, needless to say, have never done this. Also, all Cretans are liars.

Unfortunately, this is not the best type of bacon to use for one of my favorite dishes — the charcoal-grilled, bacon-wrapped, and dry-aged filet mignon that if you’ve eaten at my house I’ve likely fed you. Thickcut bacon doesn’t work well when wrapped around a filet – just ends up floppy and undercooked. Instead use a peppered regular thickness (but still center cut) bacon for that, but for everything else use the thickcut applewood bacon. After eating it, you’ll realize you were just faking it with every other bacongasm you’ve had before now.

3. Prosciutto

Prosciutto
Prosciutto e Melone ❤

More pork products! Which is rather funny, since I have not historically been the biggest fan of pork – or so I thought. I mean I liked bacon of course from the beginning, but disliked all the rest of it. I have since discovered pork tenderloin (and big surprise, specifically grilled pork tenderloin), smoked country hams, lechón, and prosciutto. Basically all I don’t like now is pork chops, that watery stuff that gets sold as “ham” so many places, and pigs feet. I’m not budging on those three.

The first time I had prosciutto was at a local Italian restaurant where it was served wrapped around wedges of cantaloupe and honeydew. Some sort of italian dry ham wrapped around slices of melon? What the hell? And then I tasted it . . .

<sigh>

More subtle than bacon, velvety in texture, and excellent on just about everything. Other than the aforementioned treatment with melons (which I still absolutely love), another fave is to take asparagus (steamed or grilled), toss it with some lemon juice and olive oil and then sprinkle freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and top with strips of prosciutto. This is one of those ingredients where you just want to keep experimenting with it, and it offers such rewards when you  do!

2. Lump charcoal

Chunk charcoal
A bed of chunk charcoal all ready to go

This may seem somewhat of an odd choice to list as an ingredient, but I absolutely believe that if you are cooking on a grill, it should be over charcoal, not gas, and that charcoal should be lump charcoal and never, ever under any circumstances briquettes. Personally I use this brand, but if it is honest-to-goodness lump charcoal, the brand shouldn’t matter.

First, regarding gas vs. charcoal — gas is convenient and easy, and like most things like that, it doesn’t work very well. Too much moisture in the gas combustion, and so you never get the same sear as you do over charcoal. And if you’re not going for a good sear, why the hell are you cooking it on the grill? Secondly, regarding briquettes: if you love the taste and smell of petrochemicals, by all means keep using briquettes. Also, keep using them if you hate the environment, like your food covered in soot, and like waiting forever for something to cook.

Lump charcoal is basically just the leftover matrix of carbon and impurities resulting from burning whole pieces of wood in an oxygen-deficient environment. No wax, no wood pulp, no petrochemicals that make your grilled fish taste like it was raised in a lake of gasoline. And it burns clean, hot, and even. It does burn more quickly than briquettes, but I solve this by starting two charcoal chimneys full of the stuff and by having a big-ass grill. Also, since it doesn’t have all those chemicals that off-gas into your food, you can even start a charcoal chimney to add later and not have to worry about it altering the flavor of food. As you can see from how many times I’ve mentioned grilling in the text above, this is a subject I take fairly seriously.

1. Butter

butter
Mmmmmm….butter. It makes it better.

My mother: “Whatever it is, butter makes it better.” My mother is a very wise woman. I don’t believe there is another single ingredient that can have such a broad impact across the entire kitchen. And I’m not speaking of margarine or any other sort of half-assed substitute. That stuff will kill you. And yes, so will butter if you have too much of it, which is why butter is the Spiderman of the kitchen – with great power, comes great responsibility. Luckily, you don’t have to drench things in butter for its presence to be felt. A little can indeed go a long way, and also pay attention to the type of butter. Your usual supermarket salted butter is fine for most cooking applications, but for many baking applications, you’re want to go with unsalted butter. However, for me this does not include my chocolate chip cookies, where I act the rebel and use salted butter. Why? Because it’s chocolate! And as we discussed under “Salt”, chocolate and salt like to make out. If you’re worried about the sodium that goes along with salted butter, you can go with unsalted, but it won’t be as good. I don’t say this to be mean, but to act as a segue into this: cooking (as with life) is often about compromise.

Conclusion: Ingredients matter because good food matters

There are some ingredients in this list that the American Heart Association isn’t too happy about. And you know what? I don’t care. No, not because I’ve gone all Ted Nugent on you, but rather because these ingredients make me (and most people who eat them) happy, plain and simple. They make food be something more than just fuel for the machine of our bodies; with them food becomes a source of inspiration for our souls.

Growing up, skinny as a rail and apathetic towards food, all food was simply fuel for the machine and I resented having to deal with it. I only took joy in candy and snacks, never regular food. Not the best environment to learn good eating (or cooking!) habits! As I got older and put some health issues behind me, all that has changed. And as a result, my attitude towards food has changed as well and I’ve become more observant about how others deal with food.

For most of us, our entire American food culture is built around that concept of “fuel for the machine” – we want it cheap, we want it fast, and we want it to satisfy us while we stuff it in our faces while we’re eating in our cars in the parking lot. No “real” food could do that – only processed, engineered food has the ability to make us think we’re enjoying it in those types of circumstances. It’s got “bad” fats, sodium, corn syrup, and no nutrients – and that’s sometimes just the salad!

I don’t have all the answers, but what I do know is that by enjoying the ingredients above and trying to work with them in a healthy way, I enjoy my food more, and when I enjoy my food, I eat better, I feel better, and as a parent I think I can say I teach my kids about food better. Working with “real” food means you have to be an adult – you don’t get to have bacon at every meal, you can’t use too much butter too often – this requires judgment and self-control in addition to cooking skills. Eating processed stuff means you’ve given up control over what goes into your body, how it’s prepared, and often times you can’t even find out what’s in it.

So pick your favorite ingredients and cook with them. Experiment with them. Even if they’re not “healthy” for you ( assuming they aren’t actually dangerous for you, e.g. allergies, health conditions, etc), if they’re something that requires you to cook something, then they’re better for you than anything processed.

Take joy in your ingredients and you’ll take joy in your food. Take joy in your food and you’ll notice what and how you’re eating and you’ll eat better. Eat better and you’ll feel better. Food is not merely calories – the choosing of ingredients, the preparation, the eating – these are things that exercise our brain and feed our soul. As I said at the beginning, I would love to hear in the comments what your favorite ingredients are!

And I don’t want to hear a single one of you say “I can’t cook!” – perhaps as long as 400,000 years ago, homo erectus may have been cooking and certainly by 100,000 years ago, Neanderthals were known to have cooked. And they had to make their own fire and catch and kill their own food. No homo sapien alive should ever complain about not knowing how to cook.

Oh, and if you’re wondering why I care so much about food, read on:

Why I’m a foodie

I’ve only been a foodie for the last 10 years or so, and I come by it in a very roundabout way. Growing up, I didn’t eat. Well, of course I ate – but due to health issues, I never had much of an appetite and I simply couldn’t smell/taste many foods properly. So I was often so thin that when I turned sideways, I pulled a Kate Moss and disappeared. Given certain gravity conditions and time spent on The Rack, I might be able to claim 5′ 6″ and when I met my wife at the age of 22, I weighed all of 116lbs.

But then after, and I think due in some way to, meeting my wife, my health began to improve (being happy is a miracle drug) and I set about adding quite a few more pounds to my frame. Quite. A. Few.

However, in all of this I made a huge discovery. I now loved food. I really can’t overstate was a revelation this was. My whole life I had been an extremely picky eater — and because of the aforementioned inhibited sense of taste & smell, most of my likes involved strongly sweet or salty flavors. After all, when you can’t smell properly, food is bland and those flavors are really all that’s left that’s pleasurable. Most of my dislikes, of which there were many, involved either the texture of the food (mushrooms, pickles, shrimp) or an overwhelmingly heavy mouthfeel (mayo, gravy, sour cream).

But that had all changed! In addition to my improved health, I was now living in my own place, with my own kitchen, doing my own shopping and my own cooking. So not only could I taste stuff now, but I could learn to cook things just the way I liked them. This made a huge difference in how I appreciated food. I mean, both my parents and especially my mom, were actually especially good cooks, but they had much different tastes than I did. [NOTE TO PARENTS: You MUST teach both your sons and daughters to cook. Yes, it actually makes it more difficult to make meals with their “help” early on, but this is a life skill no one has an excuse not to learn. If your parents didn’t teach you properly, take classes — with your kids if you want, but seriously — if you expect your kids to grow up as healthy, functional adults, teach them to cook!]

And my wife Kathy was an appreciative audience! She’d grown up the second oldest of six kids and cooking was a chore which she was more than happy to let me do as often as I was willing to try. There were some spectacular failures early on. One – a Thai-style chicken dish with a peanut sauce is occasionally referenced as quite probably the most disgusting thing I’ve ever made. But oh, the successes! Especially anything that can be cooked over a bed of charcoal or wood, I pretty much rock.

Over the years, in addition to becoming a much more adventuresome eater, I’ve become a much more accomplished home cook. And in thinking about this the other day, I realized that some ingredients are magical. And that’s what lead me to this post.