Sunday Lunch

Chef Nick of Montreal Food Blog has been posting some pretty interesting recipes lately. Today I was inspired to use one of them for our Sunday lunch. I took his “‘New Canadian’ Four Cheese Pasta” Recipe and modified it to suit the ingredients I had on hand, plus I added some roasted chicken and sautéed shitake mushrooms for a twist. (In retrospect, the “chicken and mushrooms” thing was a good idea, but the shitakes were totally overwhelmed by the cheese sauce. Regular ol’ cremini mushrooms would probably have worked better.)

I also used only two cheeses; old cheddar and an emmenthal, because that’s all we had in the fridge (not including the Parmesano Reggiano that I used in the bread crumbs). Plus I skipped the cream and used more milk instead.

What I like best about Chef Nick’s recipe is the technique with the bread crumbs. It gave the dish a nice toasted topping but it was also crispy and toasted on the sides and bottom too, which really made it pop.

Here’s what it looked like when it came out of the oven:

Penne & cheese (mac & cheese)

Here’s what it looked like on the plate:

Penne & cheese (mac & cheese)

Thanks for the inspiration, Chef Nick!

Bail Out

I‘m no economist, so I’m not going to make the mistake of pronouncing one way or another on the proposed $700 Billion Wall Street bailout that is currently being discussed in the U.S. But I’ll say this, if economists Marcus Alexis of Northwestern University, Jeremy T. Fox of University of Chicago, Matthew Kahn of UCLA, Steve Pejovich of Texas A&M University, and Caroline Fohlin of Johns Hopkins University – along with almost 200 other academics – feel it’s bad enough to sign this online petition against it, then maybe it’s not such a great idea.

Doomsayers claim they’ll fall into another 1930s-syle “Great Depression” if the banks are not bailed out. People who are sick and tired of corporate welfare and backroom shenanigans between Wall Street and Pennsylvania Avenue say they should stick it to ’em and let ’em sink.

Nobody wants to see the economy fail, but the real question seems to be “what would make the economy fail?” Given the extraordinarily high profits the major banks have made year after year over the past decade, will it really crush the economy if they have a bad year? Maybe; but I’m not an economist, so how would I know?

But what else could you do with $700 Billion? What if they said “screw the banks, let’s invest that money in America?” This MSNBC article proposes seven better uses for $700 Billion, and my inclination is to believe what it says over what a bunch of guys in blue pinstripe suits say.

According to the article:

  • The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates it would cost $180 Billion to fix the various bridges in the U.S. that are in need of repairs. A month ago, $180 Billion seemed like an astronomical amount. Now, compared to the Wall Street bailout, it’s chump change.
  • The American Society of Civil Engineers also estimates it would cost $185 Billion to bring the U.S.’s rail infrastructure up to speed. The U.S. is a big country, and getting around by rail will likely become a more popular option for both people and cargo as flying becomes less and less viable (due to high fuel prices and overzealous and misdirected airport security). The basic infrastructure is there, but it has faded and degraded over time as the almighty car and the almighty jet plane have taken over. But we’re in the midst of a sea change in how stuff gets around. Rail is already there; doesn’t it make sense to take advantage of it?

The article goes on to talk (unfortunately briefly) about other ways to spend some of that $700 Billion, such as investment in renewable energy and reduced-consumption technologies, investments in health care and education, and even national security (hopefully, in a way that makes sense).

One big advantage to that kind of $700 Billion spending is that it provides a good return on investment. These are all thing that really must be done, one way or another, and best of all, they create jobs. It’s not like those bridges are going to rebuild themselves.

But what do I know? I’m not an economist. Hell, I’m not even a U.S.er. Whatever happens, it’s going to be expensive, and I hope that the money is spent in a way that strengthens the nation and its people, and not just the Wall Street economy.

The Walrus Turns Five

The Walrus, if you don’t know, is a Canadian magazine that likes to be invited to the same parties as Harper’s, Vanity Fair, and The Atlantic. It specializes in long-form journalism from a Canadian perspective, which generally means it is doomed. Yet it has managed to hang on for five years and seems to be going strong, which for a Canadian magazine should be interpreted as “is four issues from bankruptcy instead of the usual two.”

I’ve been a subscriber to The Walrus since the first issue. Some issues are better than others, which I suppose can be said about any magazine, but when it is good, it can be very good. I subscribe not only because it’s a nice and welcome package of good reading that shows up at my door once a month, but because I’m one of those people who will occasionally put my money where my mouth is. If I want to support Canadian publishing and journalism then it shouldn’t kill me to shell out a measly $29 a year to be able to do so with authority.

But there’s one thing about The Walrus that doesn’t always thrill me; the covers. Some of the covers are brilliant. Most are fairly forgettable. And some are just awful.

Sadly, the current “fifth anniversary issue” has the worst cover I’ve ever seen. It was designed by Douglas Coupland and is a mélange of scraps torn from covers over the life of the magazine. Nice concept, but the result is ugly. It looks like some trashy thing made in an elementary school art class circa 1972. It doesn’t even have “retro” caché; it’s just ugly!

Douglas Coupland's cover for The Walrus

October 2008 edition of The Walrus.
Cover by Douglas Coupland.

Oh, but it’s by Douglas Coupland! It even says so, right there at the top. (The Walrus, for some reason, is inordinately proud of its covers, going so far as to offer prints of them for $99.) Sorry, but I’ve never been a member of the cult of Douglas Coupland, and this magazine cover is a perfect example of why I’ve resisted. Yes, he’s written some very popular novels, and yes he’s issued a number of “kitchy-chic” books on weird Canadiana, but I have never bought into it.

It’s true that I enjoyed reading Microserfs about a million years ago, but that was primarily because I worked at the time for a highly successful and very innovative software company, so I could relate to the characters in the story. I could also see, and was slightly irritated by, cases where Coupland was blatantly exaggerating for effect. Pardon me, but “exaggerating for effect” has never been my favorite narrative device when it comes to reading novels.

Regardless, I will continue to subscribe to, and read, The Walrus, and I encourage you to do so as well; that is, as long as your attention span has not been completely ruined by reading online. After all, it takes a bit of stamina to get through 10 or 15 thousand words on a topic. But I can assure you that the magazine has high editorial standards, so it’s not like reading a 10,000 word blog post.

Just don’t judge the magazines by its covers. Especially this month.

David Foster Wallace is Dead

David Foster Wallace, an American writer with a sharp wit, an illimitable vocabulary, and an odd way with satire and irony, hanged himself at his home in California on Saturday. He was 46 years old.

Tributes to Wallace abound on the Web, so instead I will give you the following anecdote.

Late last winter a friend announced that he and his sweetie had booked themselves on a seven day Caribbean cruise. I immediately thought of an article I’d read in Harper’s magazine some ten or more years earlier, an exposé of the tragically comic world of cruise ships and their inhabitants, from the disinterested yet artificially enthusiastic activity directors to the overly enthusiastic yet culturally neutered “guests.” The article skewered and roasted them all.

When I read that article I was struck dumb. I immediately set it as the benchmark for the best article of its type that I had ever read. It was the one against which all others would be measured (including, unfortunately, my own literary fits and starts, for which I could never muster much enthusiasm given how far they seemed from the marks on that bench).

I read the article several times in the few years after it came out, each time laughing and cringing along with the author, caught up in a dizzying and squirmy hailstorm of schadenfreude as the characters in the story, including the author, staggered through one human train wreck after another. This was the gold standard of satirical writing of a sort that seemed too real and truthful to even be thought of as satire.

Over the years and through the address changes, I eventually lost that copy of Harper’s magazine, even though images from the article lingered in my mind any time I saw an ad for a cruise line, which in these cold climes are abundant in the fall and winter. When my friend mentioned his upcoming cruise, I told him about the article and said I would try to find it. He seemed uninterested, stating that he was aware of the pitfalls of mass consumer holidays and had planned this one as simply a break for him and his freshly impregnated spouse, as their last bit of one-on-one quiet time for the foreseeable future. Fair enough, but I embarked on my search anyway.

I didn’t have much to go on; just “Harper’s, mid-1990s, cruise ships.” The Harper’s web site was of no use, and a Google search netted me thousands of bogus hits. I eventually managed to find a reproduction of the article on some obscure third-party Web site, although it was full of typos, which implies it was created by scanning the article and running it through an optical character recognition application. In other words, it was not the most reliable version, and the typos were highly annoying. Still, I had the thing for better or worse.

But it was long. 20,000 words long. 25% of a novel long. I cleaned up some of the errors and reformatted the article into an easy-to-read, two-column layout and made a PDF that I printed (25 pages, or 13 sheets using a duplex printer). A big read, just waiting to be read.

In the end I never gave the article to my friend because I didn’t want to ruin his vacation. Upon his return he announced that they had enjoyed themselves despite the proliferation of fakery, which for me was an interesting lesson. After all, I’ve never taken a Caribbean cruise, although there is a part of me that would like to. There is something appealing about having a small room on a boat with a view of the ocean, and nothing to do but read your book (or write one), eat, drink, and make fun of the other passengers. Frankly, that sounds like a pretty good time.

My friends, of course, also have pretty good eyes for the authentic and the inauthentic, and they know how to work around things that are not appealing. The writer of the article, on the other hand, boarded his cruise ship alone, with a diarist’s eye and a bit of an attitude. An attitude I can embrace, by the way, but an attitude nonetheless.

Still, that article holds its mark on the bench, challenged only by Charlie LeDuff’s April 2008 article in Vanity Fair on iconic but aging photographer Robert Frank’s recent visit to China. Come to think of it, the LeDuff article (“Robert Frank’s Unsentimental Journey“) probably surpasses the cruise ship one, but barely.

If you haven’t surmised it already, the cruise ship article, entitled “Shipping Out,” was written by John Foster Wallace. It was not his first major publication, but it’s the one that launched him into public awareness. The article was followed by several more reputedly excellent pieces as well as a number of fiction and non-fiction books, none of which I have read.

That article, which appeared in the January 1996 issue of Harper’s, was republished a year later in Wallace’s book of essays “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.” As you probably suspect, the book takes its title from the cruise ship essay.

Now David Foster Wallace is dead, by his own hand. While I think I understand why fellow writers Ernest Hemingway and Hunter S Thompson took their own lives (which is not to say I condone their doing so), I have no idea why Wallace did it. But I suppose that is understandable given how little of his work I know, even if that one Harper’s piece was for the past 12 years my favorite article.

According to reports on the Web, Wallace had been withdrawn lately, and had shown signs that indicated depression. Presumably a person on his beat could wear such drapery without raising any alarms, as it would be seen as the costume of his literary interests. But apparently it was more than that. He hanged himself at home, leaving his wife to discover the lifeless body, an act that makes me want to slam the book of Wallace shut right now. But I won’t. The writing, what little I’ve seen of it, is just too good. I suspect I will, in the coming months and years, dip further into his written legacy, which will likely leave me cursing him even more for ending his life and his talent at such a young age.