Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Jacksonville version of In-n-Out

I had lunch at Five Guys yesterday. This is the Jacksonville answer to In-n-Out, and is as close to In-n-Out that I think I'm going to be able to get. Even the decor is similar, with white tile and red accents. The menu at Five Guys is pretty basic, but not as basic as In-n-Out's. Five Guys has hot dogs and a few other things as well, plus they also have peanuts in the shell that you can grab a handful of while you're waiting for your food. They cook the burgers when you order, and you can get a large or small version, and they have cheeseburgers, bacon burgers, and bacon cheeseburgers. And if you order fries, you get so many you have to share. One thing they don't have though is the lemonade. Other than that, I recommend Five Guys for lunch, just try and get there early so you beat the mad 12 o'clock rush.

The Grotto

Last Friday, we went after work to a place called the Grotto over in San Marco. This happens to be one of my favorite places so far because it reminds me of the wineries in Santa Barbara. And they have a very nice selection of wines by the glass.

This time, I tried the Penfolds "Bin 389" Cabernet/Shiraz, 04, South Australia and the Valdivieso "Reserve" Cabernet Franc, 04, Central Valley, Chile.

The cab/shiraz blend was quite delicious. Ever since I went to Canberra about a decade or so ago and met a wine connoisseur who highly recommended a Penfolds cab/shiraz blend, I try and taste them when I can. Of course, by now I can't remember which bin # he recommended, but I haven't been disappointed yet, as long as it wasn't one of the cheapest bottles on the shelf.

I decided to try the cabernet franc because first, it was from Chile, and I've really enjoyed Chilean wines lately, particularly the carmenere. And second, I'd tried some cabernet francs at several wineries in central California and I was interested in how the Chilean compared with the Californian. I enjoyed this wine also, but it had a bit more of a tannic taste to it than the cab/shiraz blend from Australia.

To go with the wines, I also had the mushroom, prosciutto and manchego cheese empanadas. The crust was nice and flaky. But the mushroom to prosciutto to cheese ratio was a bit off, with the mushrooms overpowering the flavor of the prosciutto and cheese. In fact, I could barely tell there was any cheese in there at all, let alone any prosciutto. The last time we went, I had the bruschetta, which was quite delicious with lots of nice tomato, garlic and basil.

Books I've Read Recently ...

  • House Under Snow by Jill Bialosky (fiction) -- a good read. The main character flashes back to times when she was a teenager and when she was younger; focus is on her relationship with her mother and how it has effected her in the past and in the present
  • The Barbary Plague: The Black Death in Victorian San Francisco by Marilyn Chase (non-fiction). Details how the plague managed to become endemic in the western United States. A bit slow to start with lots of names and dates, but becomes more interesting as more organizations and people start to cover up the existence of plague in San Francisco to protect their financial situations. All of which comes to an end when the 1906 earthquake hits.
  • Don't Try This At Home: Culinary Catastrophes from the World's Greatest Chefs (short stories). I'll never see a wedding cake in the same light again after reading this. Some stories were much more enjoyable, some were definitely laugh out loud funny, and some were downright cringe-inducing. But almost all had one thing in common -- a loud, obnoxious chef who berated and abused his underlings.
  • Untangling My Chopsticks by Victoria Abbott Riccardi. An enjoyable memoir about her year in Kyoto learning tea kaiseki, the formal meal that can precede the tea ceremony. Also included were some recipes which I plan on trying soon. Her descriptions of the food made me want to go out and find some Japanese food, and makes me look forward even more to my upcoming trip to Tokyo. And as always, I enjoy reading stories and memoirs set in places that I've been to because I can then more easily picture the setting in my mind.

Friday, January 18, 2008

What's in my food?

I just finished reading Fateful Harvest by Duff Wilson, an Eric Brockovitch type book where the underdog local folks take on big industry. Essentially, a fertilizer company was taking the hazardous waste from other companies and converting it to fertilizer. Apparently there are loopholes where what was a hazardous waste can become a product as soon as it changes storage and/or labels. This fertilizer company was then selling their fertilizer to farmers, and some farmers ended up with fertilizer that contained enough other stuff to kill their crops. And unless other things are placed over the fertilizer, the plants will take up enough of the nasty stuff which will then pass through the food chain when the plants are eaten, either by humans or by cows which are then eaten by humans or produce milk.

There were a couple of things that I got out of this book:

1) "We the people" no longer have a voice. We may elect politicians to their positions, but it's the corporations with their highly paid lobbyists that get the legislation they want passed.

2) I worry about what kinds of chemicals and nasty stuff are in the food I buy, including the fruits and vegetables, the meats, fish, and poultry. I tend to think more and more that I need to buy a plot of land where I can grow what I eat so I know what's in my food. But even still, any soil supplements, fertilizers, etc, the actual ingredients aren't listed on the bag, so I may still end up with cadmium or lead or other unwanted things. And that's making the assumption that the land I do eventually buy isn't already contaminated with this stuff.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Another book on Japan

I just finished read Cartels of the Mind: Japan's Intellectual Closed Shop by Ivan P. Hall. What struck me the most was the consistent finding of quotes that described exactly how I felt sometimes when I was there in Japan -- the feeling that no matter what I did, or how long I was there, or how good I was with using chopsticks, or whether I was able to speak the language, I would always be a second class citizen. And that even though I was in a relatively international city because of the large number of foreigners there either as researchers or language teachers, I wasn't free to live where I wanted to. There were certainly ghettos, where us foreigners were supposed to live. If you ventured beyond that, it was definitely difficult, and there seemed to be no restrictions on landlords - they could refuse to rent to you.

This book covers the legal, news, academic and research communities, detailing how Japan, through its bureaucracy and traditions, has made it very difficult if not downright impossible for any foreigner to gain access to Japan. Whether it's the restrictions on hiring lawyers, or the clubs prohibiting foreign members, or the universities that fire all foreign lecturers or professors, these are all detailed.

Despite all that, I did enjoy my six month sojourn in Japan. But I think I definitely made the right decision to not pursue teaching and/or research possibilities in Japan. I think an annual contract with the potential for non-renewal would not have been a realistic situation for me.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Jags season over

It was a valiant effort, but the Jags lost to the Patriots on Saturday night. We didn't go anywhere to watch the game as we figured just about everyone else would be out and about watching the game and we didn't feel like fighting the crowds. Which was just as well. By the middle of the third quarter, I couldn't watch anymore and went to bed (those 8 p.m. kickoffs on the east coast make for late nights).

While we were watching, we had the doors open because it was a very nice evening. And when the Jags scored, someone somewhere was setting off fireworks (and yes, for those of you in California, fireworks are legal here, and there's a stand somewhere off I-95 which is close by. And I'm sure there are other places even closer where you can get them). And any time someone for Jacksonville did something good, someone else in a nearby apartment would cheer and yell. I think pretty much the entire town was watching the game. In fact, at the grocery store the next day, everyone asked, "Hey, did you see the game last night?"

Anyway, Go Jags!

If you need a laugh...

... and you either own a dog or have owned a dog, then this is the book for you. Emily Yoffe's What the dog did: Tales from a formerly reluctant dog owner had me laughing all through the book. She mixes personal experiences with the beagle she and her family adopted from Beagle Rescue Education and Welfare (BREW) with experiences of other dog owners, some beagles, some non-beagles. She chronicles the time it took to make Sasha, their adopted beagle, a decent canine companion that no longer felt the dining room table was an appropriate place to take a nap. She also includes some descriptions of the wide variety of beagle personalities that came through her household as fosters.

I think anyone who has had a dog, lived with a dog, or currently has and/or lives with a dog can relate to some of the stories in this book. None of her stories particularly stood out, but as I was reading, I certainly was laughing.

And I certainly was thinking of some of my own dog tales, from the time Molly decided that she'd check out Mom's newly redone bathroom and locked herself in and managed to get out through the window way at the top of the wall after shredding the laundry basket and turning on the faucets so the bathroom flooded to the time I came home to a twelve-pack of coke sitting on the floor with coke cans with bite marks and coke squirting out all over the kitchen in giant arcs (the dogs sported sticky mohawks, by the way). Or the time that Nicky decided she was going to help herself to some poor kid's sandwich while we were at the park (he was waving it around right at her nose level). Or waking up nose-to-nose with Alex under the covers and then realizing, hey, he wasn't under the covers when I fell asleep. Or my roommate's whippet that would come in and poke me so I'd lift the covers for him to crawl into bed with me.

I think the one thing I learned from this book, or actually it was simply reinforced, was that living with a dog always provides lots of entertainment, and that it takes lots of time and work with a dog to make sure they are decent canine companions and realize that you're the boss. I do look forward to the time when I have a house with a yard and can get my own dog.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Driving the back roads of Florida...

I had to go to Gainesville the other day for work. The route to Gainesville from Jacksonville is not straightforward. There is no highway, freeway or other direct route from Jacksonville to Gainesville. I did take I-10 part way, to avoid some of the streets on the westside that I always see in the news with shootings and other crime scenes. Plus, Mapquest recommended I-295 to I-10, so that's the way I went.

Anyway, once I got on the road, it was a straight shot, for the most part, to the office. But I did notice a few things:

1) people inch through red lights. I'll be the first car in my lane at a stop light, stopped because it's red. Yet the person next to me will start inching forward. And they don't wait until the light's about to turn green. They'll start doing this even if the light just turned red. Anyway, I'm stopped at a light, and this guy in the left lane started inching through, and finally he just went all the way through the red light, even though the folks in the left turn lane had a green arrow. They just honked at him as he went through the intersection.

2) they have speed trap warning billboards saying warning, speed trap ahead

3) there were lane realignment ahead signs on I-10, and I saw them and expected that there would be a decent change to the lanes ahead. Nope, the lanes shifted about a foot from the existing lane lines. In California, if they have one of those signs, it usually means a 45 degree angle change, dips and bumps over temporary construction stuff, and a lane not quite big enough for big rigs that runs right next to those white concrete dividers.

4) signage is lacking -- I noticed, or maybe I didn't notice, there was no sign indicating which was the north direction and which the south. See, there are no mountains or other large direction indicators out in Florida, so sometimes, especially at night, it's difficult for me to tell what direction something is, particularly if there's no sign saying which way is north and which is south. So I came to an intersection and had to guess, because it wasn't a straightforward intersection, I had to turn right and go over some railroad tracks and then cut back over to catch the road, and I never saw a sign that said go right for south and left for north.

South American Magical Realism

I just finished reading Cellophane by Marie Arana. This is the story of a family paper business established on a Peruvian tributary to the Amazon River. Victor Sobrevilla, an engineer, established a paper mill in the rain forest. He continues to tinker, and eventually creates cellophane. But when he does, normal life changes. First, the members of his three generation household start telling secrets despite their intentions to not share these intimate secrets. Then the consequences follow. And for some people, the revelation of the secrets leads to a happier life, but not for others. Eventually, the government through a military general comes to take control of part of the estate, and a tribe of Indians comes to take back one of their own, and other forces all come clashing together in the final pages of the book. The family manages to board a barge and go up the river while their house and belongings are being destroyed by the workers.

I say this was magical realism because of it's similarity in some cases to the stories of Isabel Allende. The co-existence of Christian religion and the unexpected magic, but both are taken to be real.

Overall, this book took a while to get into. I actually started it a couple of weeks ago, and just got back into it the other day. But once I got about half way through, I became a lot more interested in finding out what happened. Although I am rather disappointed in knowing what happened to the family after they boarded the barge. Did they all manage to go after their true loves? Did they even survive? What happened?

Jaguar Mania

It's Jaguar mania around here -- Last Saturday the Jacksonville Jaguars beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in Pittsburgh in the wild card round of the NFL playoffs. So tonight the Jags are in Massachusetts to take on the New England Patriots in their home stadium in the second round.

And the news has been nothing but Jags, Jags, Jags all week long. Jags flags are flying in place of Gator flags. Casual Friday meant teal and black Jaguars clothing.

It's actually really neat to be in a place where everyone's interested in how the team is doing. And it's fun to be in a small enough place where the chances of seeing members of the team out and about are actually pretty high. In fact, the other night we went to the Mandarin Ale House for a co-worker's going away happy hour, and a member of the Jaguars was there. He was even autographing stuff for some of the kids there.

While a win tonight won't solve the lackluster tickets sales leading to local TV black-outs for next season, in my opinion. The inability to sell out the entire stadium isn't because of a winning or losing season, I think there are other issues, such as the economy, difficulty of getting to the stadium, prices of the tickets and the food and drink that have more of an impact on whether or not tickets are sold. But it will be very exciting indeed if the Jaguars do beat the Patriots.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Catching up...

Boy, work sure does get in the way of life, doesn't it?

Anyway, have a few things...

1) I just finished Goodbye Tsugumi by Banana Yoshimoto. I enjoy her work because she manages to convey so much with so few words. This was a story about a young woman and her relationship with her cousin and how she comes to grips with the fact that while she loves her cousin, she doesn't really like her, and yet, they're still good friends.

2) I also recently polished off a bottle of Morro Bay Vineyards 2001 Central Coast Cabernet Sauvignon. This was a lovely red, with nice rounded flavors.

That's about it. I'm pretty much just working these days. The headaches are getting less and less each day, which is good. I still have a minor bump on my head which I hope will eventually actually go completely away.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Blog slowdown...

I'm back at work. It was a major shock to the system, let me tell you.

Anyway, while I have a backlog of draft posts, and some photos I want to share, things will slow down again now that I'm back at work.

PS What's wrong with a 35 hour work week? Why 40?

Lunch at Lemon Grass

I had lunch at a restaurant today. I suppose for most people, that wouldn't be too big of a deal, but I think I can count the number of times I've eaten lunch out since I arrived in Jacksonville on one hand. Unless I count the sandwich shop on the first floor of my building; but then it's still probably under 10 times.

So, a friend and I went to Lemon Grass on Old Baymeadows Road for lunch today. And it was good. Apparently, lots of people like the Amazing, which is a peanut/coconut curry dish. For me, I had the sweet and sour with chicken. What I liked about this lunch menu was that you could choose which type of meat with which type of sauce/noodle. So if I wasn't feeling like chicken, I could have beef or shrimp. Or I could have chicken with either amazing or sweet and sour or any other number of curries and sauces available.

The sweet and sour chicken was very tasty -- not too sweet, and not too sour. It had some hidden bits of ginger, and also included baby corn, onion, pineapple, zucchini, snow peas, matchstick carrots, and bell pepper. Most of the time when I get this dish, it comes with just chicken, onion, bell pepper, and pineapple. So the addition of the other vegetables was a delight.

Also, we ended up sitting in the bar area -- this place gets crowded at lunch time. It was a tad bit cold when the front door opened, but otherwise service was good and timely. I noticed a decent number of Napa and Sonoma wineries represented in the bar -- many are ones that I particularly enjoy. So I may have to revisit for dinner one night.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

CA v FL electricity woes

I just saw a news story that says that in Florida when it gets cold, people use more electricity, so they're working hard to make sure that there's enough electricity so everyone can use their heaters tomorrow.

In California, it's summer where the electricity demand soars.

Just another one of those differences I've noticed between California and my new home state. As long as there are no rolling blackouts tomorrow! It's very, very cold outside.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

"The more I study religions the more I am convinced that man never worshipped anything but himself."
-- Sir Richard Francis Burton

Glamorous Disasters by Eliot Schrefer

I'm slowly making my way through this huge list of books to read that I've accumulated over the years. One of the books on the list is Eliot Schrefer's Glamorous Disasters, a novel that describes a lower-middle class Princeton graduate's experiences as a tutor to the wealthy of Manhatten. At first, this book seems to be along the same lines as the Nanny Diaries or Hotel Babylon -- a middle class protagonist's observations of the behavior of the upper class people that they provide services to. However, in this book, the main character, Dylan, who worked his way through Princeton, and has tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt to pay off, does more than just observe the behavior of the uber-rich families whose children he tutors so they can get higher scores on the SAT. At first, he wants to join this elite group, and he thinks he can do so by becoming a professor; so while he's tutoring, he's also thinking about his grad school applications. But after a few interactions with some people with less than upright morals by middle class standards, he starts to re-think his goals in life. He spends some time being unsure of where he is in life, and actually thinking about what it is he wants to do. By the end of the book, he's decided that being part of the 'in crowd' isn't all that it's cracked up to be, and he's found something he enjoys and finds worthwhile.

I enjoyed reading this book. Dylan was an interesting character who underwent change based upon his experience. I also think this is a book that focuses on the conflict between the middle and upper classes of society, and the clash between the two. The morals and standards of the two groups are so different, which makes for an appealing story line as the middle class realizes what's going on after first beginning to feel like they've been accepted and how they're being used and decides enough is enough.

Faithless by Karin Slaughter

I read Faithless by Karin Slaughter very quickly. The blurb on the back of the book compares her books to those of Patricia Cornwell, and there were definitely some similarities. However, Cornwell's books have a limited number of main characters to track -- about 4-6. This book had more than 6 main characters to keep track of, which made it difficult sometimes to remember what was going on with each one when she switched from one point of view to another. Plus, if I recall correctly, sometimes Cornwell writes from the murderer's point of view; Slaughter simply writes from the good guys' perspective, except for the opening section.

Other than the large number of main characters to keep track of, this was a nice mystery. Definitely recommend this for a by the pool summer reading session.

Wintering Geese

There's a flock of geese wintering in Jacksonville. They come flying in in a v-formation and sploosh down in the Cedar River just in front of the apartment. This picture was taken a couple of days ago from the balcony.

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Slow-Cooked Achiote Pork

For Christmas, my mom gave us a gift card for Williams-Sonoma. I've wanted a dutch oven for quite some time, so we picked out a 5.5 quart blue Le Creuset dutch oven. It's enameled cast iron, and is quite heavy, but works well either on the stove or in the oven.

The first thing we made in it is Slow-Cooked Achiote Pork from Rick Bayless' Mexican Everyday. This is a traditional Yucatan pork dish, usually an entire pig cooked in a pit in the ground; but a simple bone-in pork roast in a dutch oven can replicate the flavor.

First, the dutch oven is lined with banana leaves. Then the roast is seasoned with a thick marinade made of achiote seasoning and lime. The roast is placed in the dutch oven, then onions are placed on top.

The result is a sweet, non-spicy pork roast that practically falls apart. And when I say 'sweet', I'm not meaning sugary sweet, but simply not spicy. I usually associate Mexican cooking with spicy, like carnitas, but this isn't. The red color comes from the achiote, which I've used to make red colored olive oil for Puerto Rican rice and peas. The recommendation is to serve this with a salsa or hot sauce. We had corn tortillas, but no salsa. The next time we make this, I definitely think something with a bit of bite/heat to it will go very nicely with it.

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"It has been my experience that folks who have no vices have very few virtues."
-- Abraham Lincoln