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:

image2(1) image1(3)

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.

FullSizeRender IMG_4357

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.

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.

I am not fighting for your rights.

I am not fighting for your rights.

I don’t care where you fall on the various spectra of gender, race, ethnicity, belief, socioeconomic class, or sexual orientation. I don’t care if you accept or reject anyone’s ability to label you with any of those things. I don’t care if you’ve lived a life with or without privilege.

It doesn’t matter to me whether you’ve been a perpetrator or a victim of oppression and assault. It doesn’t matter to me if you’ve been shamed or done the shaming. It doesn’t matter to me whether the laughter has fallen hard upon your ears or been launched like a bullet out of your mouth.

Your views on sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll are immaterial to me. As is the taxonomy of your uniqueness as a snowflake.

I am not fighting for your rights.

I am not fighting for my rights.

I am not even fighting for the rights of my children.

I am fighting for the only rights that matter.

I am fighting for our rights. Each and every goddamn one of us.

The people we hate. The people who are different. The people who hate us.

Because the moment I stop fighting for our rights and start fighting for my rights is the moment I lose.

This late night rant brought to you by seeing too much activism simply degrade into bullying and identity politics. You want to bring about change? You want equality, civil rights, and social justice? Then work to bring it about for everyone, because every case of inequality and oppression throughout history is the result of someone else getting what was theirs and then deciding that was enough.

An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity. – Martin Luther King, Jr.

The History of the World (of Social Media), Part 1 – The Myth of Social Media

Focus can be a dangerous thing.

Have you ever played golf? I do on occasion. It’s generally not pretty. Whenever I get a golf club in my hands, even if it’s just at a driving range, I face a battle. The battle is between trying to be mindful of how to swing a thin stick made of carbon fiber composite with this funny little bend at the end at a ball in such a way as to make the ball go straight and far…and completely forgetting I’m doing any of that. Usually  what happens are one or two good shots and then some wicked hooks and slices.

…and then that’s when I knocked over Doc Ock’s mailbox.

There are many pursuits which are similar — learning a musical instrument, playing video games, and for me — driving a stick shift. Everything goes along swimmingly until that moment you realize what the hell you are doing and then it precedes to all go sideways (which if you’re driving a car is usually the wrong way to go about any sort of forward progress). However, when it’s right, you forget what you’re trying to do, the world falls away and you just do it.

What is usually referred to as “social media” is like that. The best examples of social media gone wrong are usually the result of someone over-thinking and trying too hard. It feels false to anyone who sees it and thus whatever effect was intended is lost. (See the recent Applebee’s fiasco for an excellent example)

Almost three years ago, I wrote a piece titled “A Look Back @ Twitter.” It was, by far, the most successful, most read piece of writing I’ve posted here and continues to be found and read (more than 2,000 views out of the more than 10,000 I’ve received on this blog). At the time I wrote it, I’d been on Twitter for almost 3 years but only seriously using it for about a year. I have now been on Twitter for more than 5 years (it will be 6 next July) – which is like a millennium in web timescales. If you’re interested, I think the post is still pretty true and has held up relatively well, so it may be worth your time if you haven’t read it. I only bring it up to point out that since I wrote it, Twitter has changed — as well it should.

When the modern Internet developed (not back in the ARPA days, but more recently in the boom times of the 90s when the idea of it went mainstream), it was a tool in search of a problem. A number of people and companies came forward, sure in the knowledge they had figured out the secret, and they tried to make the Internet and the World Wide Web (that term sounds so freaking archaic now!) fit that vision: commerce, communication, whatever. Most of them failed. Some had some success and everyone kept trying because it was just this huge, wondrous thing that everyone knew would be vital…somehow.

Then came “Web 2.0” — a defunct marketing term if ever there was one — and after that “social media.” While there was much corporate verbiage thrown about related to leveraging communication, targeting consumers, engaging audiences, and other such nonsense, what it all basically boiled down to was a bunch of people throwing stuff up on the wall and seeing what stuck and never being quite sure why it did.

But what sticks is this: LIFE.

Zen on the Beach
“And we’ll be saying a big hello to all intelligent life forms everywhere. And to everyone else out there, the secret is to bang the rocks together, guys.” – Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams

People want to do what they’ve been doing since we started banging rocks together: find and acquire things (food, love, a good place to find the right kind of rocks), talk to other people about the things that interest them (food, love, what kinds of rocks are best to bang together), and knit themselves into a supportive social web of people that will make it a little easier to bear all the times when you can’t find food or love, or when you bang your thumb with a rock.

Where a lot of people (and companies spending obscene amounts of money) went wrong was in thinking that the “technology revolution” would change society. Instead what it has meant is that technology has changed. If you’re as old as I am, you remember what technology used to be: centralized, top-down, and hierarchical. Think mainframes. Think Ma Bell. Think broadcast network television. It was all still based on being pushy with electrons, but now it is more often (but by no means always) crowd-sourced, bottom-up, and nonlinear.

And that brings us back to Twitter (and Facebook, Tumblr, Reddit, Google+ and anything else ever referred to under the umbrella term of ‘social media’). Some of the people I met online during that my Twitter early days have bemoaned, as I have on occasion, that Twitter back then was more fun. No one knew what the hell we were doing and it worked. Most of my strongest relationships with people I’ve met online were started during that time period, with many having become close friends in my life-away-from-keyboard (aka #LAFK).

Outside the Twitter bubble, I always surprised to still encounter a lot of antagonistic feelings about Twitter and other social media services, often expressed as: “Why would I want to post everything I do online?” “No one really cares to hear that I am having coffee and a bagel!” and so on.

What I think almost everyone missed (even the folks working at Twitter) was that the reason it works is not that it’s some genius piece of technology, people are incredibly narcissistic, or that it’s a revolutionary communication tool — no, the reason it works is that it’s Life with a capital letter. Life is full of messy conflicts, vacillating between order and chaos, between breathtakingly mundane and prosaically entrancing. But when Life is presented concisely and with most of the uninteresting bits edited out, it’s pretty damn riveting.

Yep, pretty much.

So for all the self-described social media gurus, experts, wizards (and all the other inflated, meaningless titles) out there — stop it. Just stop it. Quit trying to con people into thinking that good technology requires an elite priesthood to understand or use it when the exact opposite is true. The better the technology becomes, the less separation there is between it and us. That’s the whole point really.

I guess this is my roundabout way of revisiting that “A Look Back @ Twitter” piece I wrote ages ago. Twitter has grown since then, and the ways we all use it have changed, but it continues to be a part of my life because it is inseparable from my life – I don’t mean I couldn’t live without it…just that there is no part of my life that hasn’t always had a place in how I use Twitter. As my wife knows better than anyone, my Twitter posts are a pretty damn accurate representation of who I am — random interesting bits I want to share, snarky commentary on things I don’t like, and keeping in touch with the people who are important to me. And the people I follow on Twitter reflect what I look for in the world around me – humor, intelligence, beauty, new ideas, and people basically not being dicks. For better or worse (and it’s probably both), it’s authentically me.

This is why the idea of “social media” is a myth. It’s not new; it’s the same thing humans have always been doing. We get too hung up on the details of the mode of communication and spend too little time focusing on what we’re communicating. This does not require a digital priesthood of gurus showing us the way, it does not require us to engage in the “right” way – it merely requires that we communicate in a meaningful fashion. This is true for corporations just as it is true for people.

Having a “social media strategy” is like what having a “telephonic device strategy” would’ve been like at the beginning of the 20th century. If you have to compartmentalize a method of communication that thoroughly, chances are you’re doing it wrong. Technology and buzzwords change too quickly for that ever to work. Just be who you are and, as I wrote in my earlier piece, “a ‘tribe’ of like-minded people organically grows out of that.”

The more any technology allows that to happen, the more successful it will be and the more ubiquitous it will become. The further from that a technology or service strays from that by attempting to subvert, control, or manipulate (*ahem* Facebook), the less successful it will be.

Communication is older than humans. Older than mammals. Bees doing a dance to show the way to a food source, ants identifying others from their own colony — even these aren’t as far back as it goes. Think single-celled organisms releasing and receiving chemical signals. But for the past 100,000 years humans have communicated better than any other lifeform on the planet, and we’re still not that great at it a lot of the time. We’re getting better at it though and technology is the only real way it’s going to continue to improve.

What has been called “social media” is part of that improvement I think, and at the moment, I still think Twitter does it better than any other similar technology. But identifying it all as something separate from “communication” is a pointless exercise – it’s like picking one fork of a river and saying “This is separate and distinct from everything else! I declare this water behaves differently than that water over there!”  I’m pretty sure that would come as a surprise to a fish swimming downstream.

I’ll conclude here with my not-so-secret secret for social media success, if that kind of thing is important to you: Just stop thinking about what you’re doing and be who you are — and if you don’t like the results of that, trying becoming who you want to be. If you can do that, I promise you will never need a social media guru. If you can’t do that, the problem isn’t how you use social media, it’s you.

Yes, the title of this piece is a reference to the Mel Brooks movie, and like the movie, I’m not sure there will ever be a part 2.

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.