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This is a third, and likely last article in which I pair up food with books. The previous two did not generate a single comment, but I still want to finish the series.
My third favorite cuisine is Japanese. The best Japanese cooking is about the ingredients. Think about it: sashimi is basically sliced up raw fish. It’s an ingredient with the least preparation possible. Yet it’s one of the tastiest things ever, if the fish is good and the chef sliced it well. Simplicity and lightness, that’s what I like about Japanese food. I’ve picked two of my favorite dishes, a fried fish and sea cucumber roe, and paired it up with two simple light reading book series.
My father grew up on Sakhalin island, a place where salmon and even sturgeon roe were dirt cheap and widely available. Kids would thumb their noses at their caviar and smoked fish, my dad said. But there was one fish still highly prized. A humble smelt. Easily caught, it was usually full of delicious roe. Fried – the tastiest thing ever. While fresh, interestingly enough, smelts smell like fresh cucumbers. I first tasted a fried smelt in a Japanese restaurant Yakitori East, one of the few places in New York that serves them. They are also available in Japanese and Korean supermarkets, I’ve bought and fried them at home many times.
Fried smelts are just as addictive as books from the Dortmunder series by Donalde E. Westlake. These are masterpieces of a particular subset of subset of crime fiction genre: a comical caper story. You get too root for a band of bumbling crooks led by John Archibald Dortmunder, a very competent, but extremely unlucky master thief with a beer-inspired last name.
You know how the two Alice stories have a chess game and a card game theme? Well, Dortmunder stories can be thought of as games of American football. The characters are highly specialized, just like football players, they face constant fumbles and setbacks, but from time to time they get to score. In fact, if I remember correctly, one of Dortmunder books even has chapters based on football: “First down”, and so on to more downs than there are in game rules.
Dortmunder’s core crew includes an all-purpose crook Andy Kelp, a thuggery specialist Tiny Bulcher, a getaway driver obsessed with New York City traffic patterns Stan Murch. Kelp and Dortmunder can pick locks, but when the job calls for it experts are called in. So are extra drivers, computer experts, and other colorful characters. Everybody except Stan Murch has long time girlfriends who take part in criminal acts from time to time. Stan’s cab-driving Mom known as “Murch’s mom” is a frequent cast member.
The now-canceled Firefly tv series is definitely inspired by the Dortmunder stories: as a nod, Joss Whedon named one of the big Alliance ships IAV Dortmunder.
There’s something amazingly likable about a competent, but unlucky master thief with a hang-dog look about him. I, for some reason deeply identify with Dortmunder. On the other hand, in real life I’m probably more of Arnie Albright, the friendless and obnoxious (and aware of it) fence. Arnie’s so obnoxious that nobody willingly deals with him (unless they have to). Dortmunder would much prefer dealing with another fence, Stoon who’s unreliable and pays much less.
I’ve read every single Dortmunder book there is. Westlake is currently working on the next installment in which the gang participates in a reality show.
Uni is a simple dish. Well, it’s not much of a dish. It’s sea urchin’s roe. You just dunk it in soy sauce and eat it. Uni had amazing taste: creamy, briny,sweet, custardy. If you watched Iron Chef at all, you probably spent hours listening to the judges rave about uni.
What would go great with uni? Gideon Defoe’s Pirates! books. What are they about? Well, they are about oh, only the most important things in the world. Ham. Piracy. Marine mammals. Science, Philosophy, Love. Sea shanties. Ham.
The nameless Pirate Captain leads a large group of child-like pirates and Cutlass Liz through most amazing adventures. His evil rival Black Bellamy constantly defeats an humiliates him and his crew, but the Pirate Captain does not like to dwell on that.
If I were to trust what I’ve read on the Internet, Pirates! was written to impress a girl to leave her boyfriend (which she didn’t). Defoe also is somehow related to Daniel Defoe.
There are three books out:
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These days there are a lot of documentary shows on TV about various professions. I am somewhat addicted to them – I watched whole seasons of shows about hairdressers, crab fishermen, lobster fishermen, tattoo artists in Florida, tattoo artists in Nevada (but not the one about tattoo artists in LA), restaurateurs, ice road truck drivers, custom motorcycle builders, custom car builders, correctional officers and inmates, and the Philadelphia meter maids.
My own profession is mostly untelevisable. Mostly. Well, maybe some TV network might make a show out of Aardvark’d: 12 Weeks With Geeks. I also think that there could be a tiny market for a heavily edited “looking over the shoulder” video on the code writing habits of colorful alpha geeks like Linus Torvalds, Donald Knuth, Brad Fitzpatrick, Dries Buytaert, and maybe even JWZ. I’d buy that for a dollar.
I found that there are two occupations that are unexpectedly similar to that of a software developer: prison inmate and line cook. Both of these are heavily male dominated, involve a disproportionate amount of minorities and are very stressful.
I recognized offices in which I worked all my life in prison layouts. The common criminals usually live in a common area in the center of the prison. This is exactly like a common area of an office, except with bunk beds instead of desks. Some actually have semi-private cubicles. Inmates organize into gangs, just like departments. Gang leaders are usually placed into single or double cells that line the perimeter of the common area to cut down on the communication between them and their reports. Even there you have to be a manager to score an office.
Restaurants are a lot like developer shops. You have your front of the house: waiters (sales people), hosts and managers, food runners (analysts). And then you have your back of the house: chefs (architects and lead developers), line cooks (developers) and prep cooks (producers). There’s no good equivalent for dishwashers in a typical developer shop.
People often assume that a chef primarily cooks and a lead developer primarily codes. Do you know the title of Julia Child’s awesome show? Well, she was neither French nor a chef. Chefs do surprisingly little cooking, they are more like conductors in orchestras. They create menus, divvy up the tasks, check quality, train and supervise cooks. Best chefs, just like the best lead developers do find time to cook, but still spend more time organizing, tasting and researching.
When you are working with true professionals, one of the best things to do is to ask them to choose for you. Japanese have a special word for it – “omakase“. When you say “omakase onegaishimasu” in a sushi bar, the chef will create a custom meal for you, based on the freshest and the best ingredients available at the moment.
If you ever give your money to Warren Buffet, your hair to Jonathan Antin, your floundering computer maker to Steve Jobs, the choice of where and what to eat to Tony Burdain — they’ll do a good job. Doing the same with any stock broker (is likely to churn your investments or worse ), the Supercuts barber (might style you ala Gates) , Carly Fiorina (might make poor H and P spin in their graves some more) is a capitally bad idea.
For a while I’ve been running Amazon’s “omakaseTM” ads on my blog, and I’ve got to tell ya, they stink. I, personally, would fire the business dev suit running (or rather running into the ground) Amazon’s Associates program. This person is never going to be fired, because by it’s nature, Amazon Associates is an amazing thing, one of the best business ideas that Amazon ever implemented. It’s like an Abrams M1 tank – even a drunk moron can drive it around and do a lot of very impressive damage, but it takes a highly trained soldier to really unleash it’s true destructive capabilities.
I am very disappointed in Amazon Associates products, especially omakase, and because of that I am building my own Amazon Associates ad server in my spare time. Lately I haven’t had much spare time, so the project is moving rather slowly. I’ll be pulling omakase ads off though, and meanwhile I’ll replace it with a holiday gift for my readers.
I will replace the ads on my website with promos for some blogs and websites of my readers (as well as some of my favorites). Do you you have a site you’d like to promote? Comment here or send me an email. Suggest as many as you want. If you have some “creative” – that’ll help. And if you won’t suggest anything (as it usually happens when I ask for suggestions) and make me feel very sad, instead of promoting your sites, I’ll do the same with all the splogs that sometimes spam me. At least they take the time to leave a comment.
Chef M.D. Rahman in one of his two Kwik Meal food carts on the corner of 6th avenue and 45th street in Manhattan.
A few days ago I saw the funniest ad while working out. It was a recruitment ad for the CIA and its tagline was “Why work for a company when you can serve the nation?” I almost fell from the treadmill.
I am pretty sure that they wanted to do “Why work for a company when you can work for The Company“, but then decided that not everyone would understand the humor. Intelligence community slang always cracks me up. They could do an ad spot with a dude looking for a place to send his resume and getting the response “No Such Agency”.
I wonder if chefs call their school “The Company”. I own a book called The Professional Chef’s Knife Kit published by that CIA. I also know a guy that owns an official CIA chef’s knife (which is very cool), but I can’t find one online – searches for CIA and knife return very wrong results.
My wife’s parents’ friends visited France. One of their huge disappointments was the French Onion Soup. They went into an expensive restaurant and ordered the soup. After the first taste they called a waiter (who apparently spoke English) and asked if he was sure that it was the famous French Onion Soup. After being assured that it was the classic, traditional onion soup prepared by a chef with many years of experience they were very disappointed. They told the waiter about an Irish tavern in Brooklyn that serves French Onion Soup that tastes ten times better than what they were brought. Like dish water the French version tasted, they said.
I’ve had the onion soup at Buckley’s, and I’ve got to tell you that it’s very, very tasty.
It’s located right next to the Harvard Club, where
Believe it or not, I can’t find a good outside picture. For having such a cool clubhouse they have a pretty crappy website. I guess I’ll have to take some pictures myself.
I don’t have a yacht (I have to ask how much it cost, so according to J. P. Morgan, I can’t afford it) and I have not gone to Harvard. And there is no Brooklyn College club. Or is there? I like the idea of a club. Clubs are cool. Be like a real gentelman. Have some steak. Read a book. Smoke a sigar. Have some scotch. Well, I do those things at home, but it must be much cooler in a club.
In Times Square, inside MTV studios, some show was shot live. I could see the host and the audience through the window.
Saw a middle aged cop with a citation bar for Medal For Valor. It’s kind of like Purple Heart.
Well, the times are tough, but at least he is not Rahman, M.D.
Like everybody else, I am frequently annoyed by waiters, clerks and salespeople. Like all geeks I am a little deficient in the communication department, which makes it harder.
After getting somewhat bad service from a waitress in Blue Note I even suggested to a friend of mine the following idea: a world where waiters are replaced by a computer interface. You study an interactive menu and your orders are transmitted directly to the chef.
Her argument against that was that some waiters are real characters and are really entertaining. And that’s entirely true! Howard Johnsonâ€™s in Times Square has a really unique staff of old timers, probably the most polite waiters I met. Waiters at Peter Luger’s are gruff steak experts. Without them the atmosphere would not be the same. On Dave Attel’s Insomniac I’ve seen a late night cheese steak joint where you are expected to curse out the servers and they are expected to answer in kind. Itâ€™s not a family restaurant, of course.
But on the other hand, I find ordering in fast food places somewhat tough. The dude in Coffee Connection (Dunkin’ Donuts rip-off) habitually adds milk to my coffee when I ask for cream. More than that, he lies when asked if that’s milk in the coffee. I carry special glucose detector sticks to check if the soda I get brought is really diet (because I am on a low carb diet). Sometimes it isn’t. Many ordering experiences go pretty much as described by J.S. Bach of the Rant, his coolness JWZ. (don’t be lazy, open the link. It’s short and hilarious).
Now, that I can understand. I worked at glorious Nathatns Famous at Coney Island, and I have a really bad short term memory. When you do mind numbing tasks all day remembering even the simplest instructions is very hard. Well, of course the menu was a bit more complex than popcorn and soda and I had to keep track of many more different things, but still…
All you need is a PDA. You get a menu beamed to it before you enter. You select your order. You beam the order to the waiter. When done, you beam the payment. Not a single word needs to be spoken. Ahh, future.
Ok, here I am ranting again about food not allowed by my low carb diet.
General Tso’s chicken. Mmmmm. Deep fried chicken cubes in sweet and spicy sauce. Droool.
Ok, if I can’t have it, I can at least finally find out who is this general and why the dish is named after him. Luckily I am not the first one to ask myself that question. Well, trusty google gave me some answers, but very few things are completely clear.
Is it an ancient Szechuan dish called “ancestor meeting place chicken” or was it “It was invented in the mid-1970s, in NYC, by one Chef Peng”? Probably the second.
General Tso seems to have been a real military general. My theory was that it’s genral in the sense of “concerned with, applicable to, or affecting the whole or every member of a class or category”, as opposed to “special”. Anyways, his specialty (huh, huh I made a pun) was Chinese and Muslim rebellion crushing. But were his “.. operations were carried out while he suffered from recurring bouts of malaria and dysentery”? Has he “… flunked the official court exams three times, a terrible disgrace …” or did he have a ” ..successful career as a scholar-administrator”? Was the chicken named so because “…General Tso […] had the top leaders of the Nian Rebellion executed with the proverbial “death of 10,000 cuts”[…] ” or just in admiration?
And how many puns can be made by people writing articles about the good general and his dish? Try to count in the following articles (which I qoted in my post):
Who Was General Tso And Why Are We Eating His Chicken?