Monthly Archives: August 2013

Breadmaking: A skill worth pursuing

While I was living abroad in Ecuador, I got really into cooking. After the culture shock wore off, after the initial feelings of exciting and new wore into the normal rhythm of daily life, I started to feel a rumbling in my stomach, a yearning for the tastes and comforts of what I was used to back home. Without access to what I would consider normal groceries, I had to learn how to make what I wanted with the ingredients at my disposal.


Whereas Ecuadoreans receive the majority of their carbohydrates from rice, I was longing for my North American diet of bread, the thick, crusty loaves that I took for granted back home. So I learned how to bake. Everything boiled down to trial and error. Sure, I could read a recipe, watch videos of people kneading flour and water into dough, but it was only after doing it myself that I began to understand what a lot of people talk about when they describe bread making as a Zen-like, almost spiritual experience.

It’s something that I could only learn to appreciate by making it into a daily practice, by starting out with words on a page and developing those recipes into my own muscle memory. Again, trial and error. Like two cups of flour, that sounds simple enough, right? But the cookbooks never explain that flour scooped out from a sack with a spoon tends to measure out to a greater volume than that same flour packed into a measuring cup.

Stuff like that makes a big difference in the end product. So do variables that nobody could ever teach me, like the discrepancy in what my oven thermometer assured me was the inside temperature compared with the undercooked doughy loaves suggesting a different level of heat. Or the fact that on humid days, I found it necessary to keep a bowl of flour next to my counter space, to prevent the dough from sticking to my hands and the work surface.

When I took my first really good loaf out of the oven, I’m talking a deep brown, crusty bread, steaming from the inside out, I knew that this was a skill worth pursuing. After a few months, bread making became almost second nature. I knew how to make a dough without even using a measuring cup. Judging by touch and texture, I could tell if a little more water was needed, maybe an extra blast of heat at the end to really give it that golden finish.

After I had a comfortable handle with the basics, I was able to start experimenting, adding different ingredients, molding the dough into various shapes. My understanding of the leavening process allowed me to craft baguettes or custom cakes. With just three simple ingredients, I was able to create an endless amount of goods I’d normally buy prepackaged at the grocery store.

If I flattened out the dough, I had pizza crust. If I made those crusts a little thinner and cooked them on top of a hot skillet, my rounds inflated into perfect pitas. By adding some sugar and eggs and frying my dough in hot oil, suddenly I had fresh donuts. I found that all of these tricks could be applied to everyday dishes I hadn’t before considered, like yeasted pancakes, or by eliminating yeast all together, by replacing wheat flour with other grains, I could fashion my own tortillas.

After reading something online about sourdough bread, I decided to capture my own wild yeast, to leaven my bread without the use of the dry-active prepackaged convenience. The process was slow, starting with a tablespoon of flour and water, leaving it in the kitchen to attract the myriad microscopic organisms floating invisible through the air. I’d add a little more water and flour each day, giving everything a stir whenever I happened to pass by.

There was life inside of that cup. In that controlled environment, although I couldn’t see it, there was feeding, there was reproduction. Eventually my starter bubbled with visible proof of success. I poured a little into my next bread, and it actually rose. When I pressed my hands to the dough, I can’t explain it, but the texture was slightly different. I’m having trouble describing the difference, but it’s something that was noticeable only because I had become so familiar with my everyday process.

The finished product was denser, it had a definite sour taste, and as I took a few bites of what I had baked, I thought about the microbes and yeasts unique to that region, to my kitchen. I had made something distinctive, and this was the end result. How did human beings come up with this process? Without an Internet or cookbooks to consult, who thought to grind up grain into a flour, leave it out for days to moisten and rise, and then bake it in the oven?

It’s all too common to lose myself in the contemporary world, with the comforts of our modern food system, the many shortcuts available to every home cook. But I’m glad I had the opportunity to learn how to bake bread, to really make it a part of who I am. When I’m in the moment, when I have my hands in that dough, when the mixing turns to kneading and the mass becomes something real in my hands, I imagine the generations that came before, I feel the whole of humanity behind me, the future stretching out endlessly in front.

Originally published on

My broken bicycle chain

The other night I was riding my bike home from work when I started to hear this clicking sound. I couldn’t tell what was wrong exactly, but every three or four pedals, it was this noticeable click. One block away from work, two blocks, I started building up some speed and the clicks came at shorter intervals. Part of me thought, OK, something’s definitely wrong, like I know it’s not supposed to be making those sounds, but what was I going to do? It’s not like I had any tools on me, and even if I did, I wasn’t really in the mood to start pretending to be a bike mechanic on the side of East Fifty-Fourth Street.

So I started changing the gears rapidly, like maybe that would fix it. You want to something to click about? I’ll give you something to click about. Only, and this is totally speaking in retrospect, but I wish I had just left it in that one gear, because after a few turns of the shifter, the pedals jammed like the chain got stuck. I looked down, and it actually came apart, one of the links broke, and I watched the line of metal wind its way through the derailleur and then drop onto the floor.

This all happened within maybe ten seconds. It was like I was watching it, but I couldn’t really comprehend what was going on. My eyes saw the chain leave the bike, but my legs kept pedaling futilely, with nothing to give them any resistance, it was just this hollow motion, all while my brain simply could not make sense of the visual, the tactile, finally my momentum came to an end and I had to get off the bike.

I walked back and found the chain. For some reason that stupid, “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link,” saying ran through my head, and it got me really annoyed. I had just worked a double, my back was killing me. All I wanted to do was get home and watch some TV before I passed out for the night, but now I really was going to have to pretend to be a bike mechanic on the side of the street.

The thing about bike chains, you touch them once and that’s it, that’s the last thing you can touch until you have a chance to get to a bathroom sink. Whatever bike chain grease is made out of, it gets everywhere. And of course I didn’t think about that, I just picked up the chain, and then next thing I knew I had grease on my shirt, on my backpack. I looked down and my left hand was in my left pocket looking for keys or something I might use as a tool.

I wasted twenty minutes looping the bike chain back through the system, and then I tried my best to hammer the chain back together with my bare hands. I stood the bike back upright and took off. Unfortunately, my fingers weren’t able to do the trick like a bike chain tool does, and so it was click, click, and the whole thing fell apart almost immediately.

It was close to midnight. I didn’t know what to do. Finding a cab that would let me shove my bike in the backseat would have been a long shot. Then again, I was kind of far from the subway, and at this time of night, I had no idea how much time I would have spent waiting for a train. I finally decided that I’d sit on the bike and push myself home, like a scooter.

It was one of those ideas that sounded great in my head, but halfway across the Queensboro Bridge, way too late to turn back and figure something else out, I realized what a strain this was on my system, my chest muscles felt like they were supporting my arms holding onto the handlebars, pushing my torso outward while my legs took turns alternating between standing on a pedal and pushing off the ground like I would a skateboard.

And I woke up this morning and my right foot was all swollen, like I could feel my actions last night aggravating muscles that I probably don’t use much while I’m walking or running, but I had stubbornly kept at it, refusing to let any more of the night pass than it already had. And now I’m sitting here looking at this bike with no chain, totally useless.

I love riding a bike because I’m free to go anywhere in the city without ever having to spend any time waiting around for buses or trains. And usually it’s great, I have my commute timed out to the minute, I save a lot of money on not having to buy a monthly MetroCard. But every once in a while something like this happens, something breaks, or it starts raining, or the bike lane on the bridge gets shut down for repairs. And then I’m stuck, I have to figure something out, I can’t take a cab, I can’t even run. In these moments, no longer is my bike a key to freedom, it’s an anchor, weighing me down wherever I happen to be, I’m mercilessly bound to the present.

Pogo sticks are lame

When I was a little kid, I wanted a pogo stick so bad, bad enough that one year I got one for Christmas. I can’t describe to you my disappointment when I finally stepped on to jump up and down. In my little kid head, I imagined it to be like this magic bouncing stick, that all I would have to do was hold on as this tool took me on a wild up and down bouncy bounce ride.

pogo stick

But pogo sticks aren’t really bouncy. They’re springy. It takes a lot of muscle and weight to slam that thing down hard enough on the ground so that it’ll launch you even an inch or two upward. I think if I had to blame someone for my misconception, yes, I’ll take part of the blame, but there was also this popular toy when I was in first or second grade, the Pogo Ball, that I feel deserves most of the credit for leading me to put any hope of fun into a boring pogo stick.

The Pogo Ball was essentially a volleyball sized thick rubber ball with a little circular platform wrapped around the middle. Imagine what the planet Saturn looks like, and that’s basically the shape of the Pogo Ball. I had one of those as a little kid, and while I didn’t really have the motor skills necessary to actually bounce around, that was the idea behind this toy. All of the commercials showcased kids my age flying around town, dramatic leap after ridiculous bounce.

I couldn’t get it right, and so I assumed that it was because the Pogo Ball was a poor man’s pogo stick. All I needed were handles, and I’d be able pogo with the best of them. But that Christmas morning, one look at the pogo stick had me realizing that I’d been fooling myself all along. The dead giveaway was the solid bottom, the fist shaped piece of hard black rubber on which ground would meet stick.

How was this thing supposed to bounce? I’d been picturing some sort of an ultra bouncy inflatable ball, or maybe something like flubber. And again, those springs, it’s so hard to get that thing to want to go.

A couple of years ago I was at my parents’ house and, for some reason or another, I wound up snooping around the garage. Hanging on the wall was the old pogo stick. I figured, I’ve got the weight now that my ten-year-old self lacked, let’s see if I can’t get this going. And while I did manage to successfully pogo, it wasn’t all that fun. I mean, maybe it would have been fun if I could have made this thing work twenty years ago, but now, I don’t know.

I guess bouncing up and down isn’t as fun as it used to be. I always used to love jumping on trampolines. One of my friends had one when I was high school, and we’d spend hours catapulting ourselves as high as we could, catching each other’s bounces, trying not to break our arms on the sides. But ten years later I remember being at someone’s house, also with a trampoline, and the up and down motion made me instantly uncomfortable. It wasn’t nausea, and it wasn’t a headache, not really. I don’t know how to describe it other than I felt like I was losing control of my eyes, like they were slowly drifting out of orbit, that if I didn’t stop bouncing, they’d roll up to the inside of my head or cross permanently. It was just really disorienting I guess.

And it was the same with my adult pogo stick experience. Sure, I was going up and down, but I couldn’t really stay focused, I kept pogoing in a circle that I couldn’t control. The springs were really, really loud, and the nails-on-a-chalkboard screech only added to that vertigo effect.

I’m still blaming the Pogo Ball. If it wasn’t for that cheap piece of crap, I would have never got it in my head that pogo sticking was something worth wanting to do. Man, I think about a lot of the popular toys from my childhood, all of them stupid pieces of plastic that never really delivered on the advertised experience. Skip-it was basically a wheel attached to your leg by a piece of nylon string. What a piece of junk. It never even stayed on the ground, so the counter never counted anything. Skip-it. They should have called it Don’t-buy-it.

Movie Review: The World’s End

Ah yes, a British movie. I went to see The World’s End, and I couldn’t help but thinking about all of the movies I’ve seen that were made across the Atlantic: not too many. I’m sure they make lots of films over there, but the ones that make it to me, to a pretty average American moviegoer, I don’t know, it’s like The King’s Speech, Monty Python … do Hugh Grant movies count? They totally don’t count. Even in his most British pictures, he’s really just something on loan from the UK to Hollywood, like even though Love Actually took place across the pond, there were all sorts of American actors and tropes and …

world's end robot

And what am I talking about, Love Actually? I never saw Love Actually, I just remember overhearing someone else talk about it once. Someone really stupid. And I could just tell how inauthentic the whole thing was, you know, from this non-Englishman’s point of view.

The World’s End is billed as the third part in a trilogy of sorts, although besides the principle cast and writing team, there’s not really a coherent story linking all three parts. Shaun of the Dead imagined how Simon Pegg would confront the zombie apocalypse, Hot Fuzz had something to do with police officers (I never actually saw Hot Fuzz,) and The World’s End follows five high school friends who reunite twenty years later to finish a twelve-stop pub crawl they almost completed back when they were eighteen.

I realized pretty soon into the movie that I was laughing a lot more than I would be at this point during an American movie, during parts in any movie that I wouldn’t normally find laugh-out-loud funny. I attributed a lot of the giggles to the fact that everybody’s talking really fast, jokes weaved tightly into every sentence, with absolutely no stopping for even the briefest of pauses between syllables or breaths. It’s just non-stop dialogue and everybody’s speaking in an accent and, yeah, I guess that is pretty funny.

The humor is very dark. Simon Pegg’s main character Gary King hasn’t developed at all since the early 1990s montage that opens the film. By the time we meet our protagonist in the present day, twenty years of partying have taken their toll. The whole intro, the extended speech explaining the almost-made-it night of twenty years ago, it winds up being told by King in the middle of a twelve-step meeting, and even the other participants seem disturbed by the enthusiasm in which he recounts the best day of his life.

King rallies his old friends and convinces them to have a proper night. Twelve bars, twelve beers, all culminating at The World’s End, a fitting name for the final tavern. As the Five Musketeers head out to their old home town, in King’s high school car, with the same exact cassette mix tape never having been removed from the tape deck, the gang starts to question the psychic hold their friend seems to manage over everyone else.

Just as the adults step in to make some belated adult decisions, it turns out that the town has been taken over by robots. And even though that’s pretty much the whole plot of the movie, once things get rolling, a lot of the genuine character-driven plot evaporates. I get it, I guess, that this kind of a spoof on a disaster movie is a way to confront existential problems, addiction, middle-age, conformity, feelings of isolation, but I just couldn’t help but feel that the group dynamic was building toward something. And then the robot thing happens and that’s basically the rest of the movie.

All the way until the really bizarre ending, something that, after having seen Monty Python, I’m just going to go ahead and make the sweeping generalization that all British movies have to have crazy endings. Except for The King’s Speech. Did I mention that I saw The King’s Speech already? Well, I saw it. Although, I guess it’s not all that normal of a movie, right? A king? With a stutter? And the doctor is some crazy guy from Australia? That didn’t really happen, did it?

I like it ice cold

I want my ice cream cold, so cold that my tongue shouldn’t even be able to touch it, not safely. I want you to have to take it out of the deep-freeze freezer, you’ll actually have to put it in the microwave just to take it down a bit, just a couple of degrees, to where it’s still way too cold to touch, I still can’t lick it, I’d still get a major ice-burn on my tongue if I attempted premature contact.

And then I want the spoon to be warmed up, not in a microwave, obviously, you can’t put metal in the microwave. Maybe I could find some sort of a composite spoon? All right, give me a spoon made out of the same material they make hockey sticks and golf clubs. I want it to be light, like ultra lightweight, so now OK, you can go ahead and throw it in the microwave for a minute or two.

If you haven’t already, you should go ahead and buy two microwaves, because I don’t want to wait around while you’re messing with different power level settings for the ice cream and for the spoon. I want them both to be warming up at the same exact time.

All of my soda has to be ice cold too. Also, the carbonation has to be really powerful. But more importantly, really, really cold. But only slightly less important, the carbonation. Don’t talk to me about freezing points, I want a colder-than-ice Coca-Cola that somehow hasn’t turned into a block of ice. I’ve seen it done before, it was science class in high school, or a science TV show that the science teacher showed us on one of those days where she didn’t feel like teaching, it was something about not disturbing the liquid, or putting something inside of it, and it’ll stay liquid.

You know that sensation you get when you first take a sip of a really ice cold drink? Like you can feel it working its way down your esophagus? I want that with every sip, not just the first. And I don’t want to feel it just in my esophagus, I want to feel it all the way down, snaking its way through my intestines, that refreshing feeling chilling a path throughout my whole digestive system.

My soup also has to be really cold. I don’t care what time of year you’re supposed to traditionally eat gazpacho, I’d like it in January, February, if there’s an unseasonably cold stretch through March or April, I’m going to order gazpacho then also, along with other summertime soups, watermelon bisque … I can’t think of any other cold soups, but I know they’re out there, and again, ice cold, I want you to serve me a whole tube of Sensodyne as an appetizer, something to really numb up my gums, I want to hold a big mouthful and really let my whole head cool off.

Iced coffee, iced tea, ice, ice cold. And don’t bother with the regular ice cubes. I want ice cubes made out of iced coffee and iced tea. It has to be cold brewed, by the way. I don’t want anything that’s ever been heated up. I mean, yes, to some extent, I’m always going to have to acknowledge the fact that the earth was formed out of a ball of cooling molten rock, but that’s just it, it’s cooling, it’s getting there.

My favorite planet is Pluto. My favorite sport is ice hockey. If I got to choose a superpower, it would definitely be ice powers. Then I wouldn’t have to worry about talking about any of this nonsense. Give me a hot soup, go ahead, I’ll ice you dead in your tracks, that hot soup’s never going to make it over to my table. And then next idiot server who even thinks about sending over another bowl, he’s going to think again. He’s going to bring me the coldest one they’ve got. And then – zap! – ice powers to make it even colder, and I’ll be able to take it, no frost-burn, no Sensodyne, just straight up cold, colder than all of the Coors Light in the Rockies.

Because seriously, I can’t emphasize enough, I really like my stuff cold. Make sure you tell the chef, because I’ve got a thermometer right here. I’m going to use it, and I’m going to send it back. It’s all just a matter of how many times I’m going to send it back. Got it?