Monday, April 23, 2007

Landlocked Blues

I thought it appropriate to, well, appropriate the title of one of my favorite Bright Eyes' songs to head this post about Nebraska, home of Bright Eyes and Buffalo Bill Cody and, uh, I'm sure a lot of other stuff that I just haven't noticed.

I've driven through Nebraska at least once before, back in 1994 with the late great Kosmo on our pre-Moscow cross-country trek, but I didn't remember a thing about it (I may have driven through as a child as well on one of our summer meanders). I would love to report that I somehow forgot the wonder and splendor that is Nebraska from earlier visit(s), but, well, to steal one of my favorite Stellan Skarsgard lines, "it would taste a lie."

Here is what I know of Nebraska, at least as far east as North Platte, where I am currently holed up at the Super 8:

It is brown and mossy-colored rolling hills and flat tan stretches of grass punctuated by the bright white towers of grain elevators, and the smell of cow and diesel hangs heavy in the air.

Oh, and all but one of the restaurants that included their menu in the North Platte Super 8 Menu Guide serve "freedom fries." Really. I never saw that seriously on a menu, even in 2002/3.

Also, Mi Ranchito, the "fine Mexican dining" establishment next to the Super 8, where I had a "small dinner" selection big enough for a lumberjack, serves a cheesecake burrito. Both horrified and intrigued, in a "can I watch the autopsy?" kind of way, I asked the server what exactly was in the cheesecake burrito. They put cheesecake batter in a flour burrito and then deep fry it.

Let me repeat: cheesecake batter. Flour tortilla. Deep-fried.

I thought immediately of the Scottish woman who once tried to make a dish sound more appetizing to my best friend L. and I by stressing that it was "deep fat fried." Apparently to distinguish it from things fried in broccoli juice or something. I know that, in the name of research of all things pastry or pastry-ish, I should have ordered one, but I just couldn't bring myself to do so. If I have shamed my intended profession, so be it. Forgive me, St. Honore.

A couple other things I saw today as my car struggled, literally groaning, to haul all my stuff up and down the Rockies and then across the prairielands:

  • Perhaps my all-time favorite highway signs ever, eastbound on I-70 just past Idaho Springs. After warning of steep grades with the usual truck-on-a-triangle yellow hazard sign, an above-lane sign (a real, legit one, made by the highway department) read: TRUCKERS, DON'T BE FOOLED! STEEP GRADES AND CURVES NEXT SIX MILES. Yes, truckers, beware the road gremlins that will try to trick you into thinking you're on a level straightaway when you're in the middle of the Rocky Mountains! Even better, a few miles later (4.5 miles to be exact) was another official highway sign that warned: TRUCKERS, YOU ARE NOT DOWN YET! STEEP GRADES AND CURVES NEXT 1.5 MILES! Just in case, I guess, the fact that their rig was hurtling down a mountainside wasn't clue enough.
  • Also seen, on the back and sides of a tanker near Sedgwick, Colorado, exactly as it appeared: "INEDIBLE TECHNICAL ANIMAL FAT. Naturally." Where do I start with that? What exactly is "technical" animal fat? And why did the makers, or at least transporters, of it feel the need to add "Naturally" in sexy italics? If they're trying to make it sound better to the average puzzled consumer sharing the road with it, perhaps they could start by calling it something less disturbing than "inedible technical animal fat." "Cheescake burrito filling" might do.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Rocked Out

Hi from the Super 8 in Grand Junction, Colorado, where the coffee is muddy but the wifi is free...

I left Las Vegas yesterday at 0500. Only after crossing into Arizona's northwest corner did I realize that I pulled out of Sin City without looking back, not even once.

Despite no love lost for Vegas, I did enjoy working at the hotel, and after checking out and turning in my uniform, my colleagues took me out to a bar where one of my favorite sous chefs taught me to play pool. Loved it!

Once I got on the road, I detoured, if I may use that word (is it even a word?), to Capitol Reef National Park and then Arches National Park. Arches is supposed to be one of the most beautiful NPs in the country. I dunno about that, but it's certainly one of the most popular. It was hella crowded and I realized, about halfway along the Scenic Drive, that I'd had enough of it. It was a combination of clueless tourists milling about and more red rocks. Yes, the arches are neat, but I've seen a lot of red rocks the past few months. I mean, a lot: the aptly-named Red Rocks, Valley of Fire, Cathedral Gorge, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, random roadside formations... I could go on and on.

So I turned back from completing the Scenic Drive and headed here to overnight before setting forth, momentarily, on another detour, this time to The Black Canyon of The Gunnison (yes, that's its official name), a national park that is full of black rocks, as the name suggests, which should be a lovely diversion.

I have photos but can't remember where I put my UBS cable, so they'll have to wait for another post. I do feel the need to mention a couple randoms:

  • For those of you who know how much I love those "my special child" bumper stickers, I saw a new low in the genre: My Child Excels At Crawford Preschool Academy. Oh, the horror. Can a preschooler actually "excel" at anything?
  • As the ranger was suggesting the best things to see at Arches given my "condition" (more on that in a moment), an old man walked up, interrupted him to demand directions to a place to eat outside the park boundaries, then walked away. I said to the weary-looking ranger "I'll thank you on his behalf" and he said "I'm used to it. Nobody thanks us." Rangers get paid almost nothing and are often caught in the crossfire of political quibbling and budget cuts. Yeah, they get to live in places like Zion, but they have to deal with idiots and rude people all the time. So this is my Earth Day Plea: Be extra super nice to the next ranger you see. Take a moment to thank him or her not just for giving you directions, but also for dealing with the muttonhead who wants to climb a fragile natural formation, leave his or her beer cans in a tree or carve initials into a fossilized mollusk.
  • You may have noticed I'm not mentioning any hiking. That's because I broke my toe! Derrrrr. Yes, Thursday night, in a rush to do some packing before going out with the bakery gang, I slammed my foot but good into a doorframe. It's just my little toe on my right foot, so it's not debilitating, but even with my good hiking boots on, it's really not up for much trekking. So I'm... shudder, car-touring.

More soon, including an answer to the question that I have often pondered: what's in Nebraska, anyway?

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Iron Chef!

Well, Tin Chef might be a more accurate title. On my final day of externship, I had another Chef’s Table tasting, only this one was for just the chef who runs the tastings and the other students. Chef Olmos was disappointed that he hadn’t been invited, but afterward I told him he didn’t miss anything.

Today’s tasting was, you see, sort of like a nutty version of "Iron Chef." We did four courses, and for each course, we would get two mystery ingredients, to which we could add only two components. We went course by course (instead of plating up everything at the end) and had strict time limits for each, ranging from five minutes for a starter to 15 minutes for the entree. Every student had to do every course, whether we were culinary or baking/pastry.

In addition to being limited by time, we were limited to adding things only from what Chef had set up for us in a small "market" with some fresh produce, extremely basic dairy and spices and oil and vinegars. He also included some rice and barley, uncooked, I think to throw us off and get us to make something that would never be finished in time, cheeky bastard.

Maybe because it was my last day, maybe because Chef Olmos had already given me my evaluation yesterday (I got 46 points out of a possible 50, with very positive comments... the only thing he dinged me on was "going too far" and "taking too many risks" on my tastings. That white chocolate and saffron panna cotta is going to haunt me the rest of my days, isn’t it?), but, for whatever reason, I just didn’t give a patoot. I mean that in a good way. I had a ton of fun and wasn’t stressed at all, and really was not emotionally invested one way or another in my dishes. A few of the other students (including Eunice) got themselves all crazy worked up and stressed, but I just thought it was a hoot.

Here, for better or worse, the results (for the record, I finished all my dishes at least 30 seconds before time, and I never felt rushed, I think because I decided beforehand that I was going to keep things simple and not try to be Julia freakin’ Child or anything):

Starter: we were given only one ingredient for this one, in this case, two heirloom tomatoes, a red and a yellow. We had five minutes from the time we saw our mystery ingredient to the time we were expected to have the finished plate in front of Chef.

I added baby greens for color and texture and some goat cheese seasoned with salt and pepper. The cheese was a lot softer than I thought it would be when I grabbed it, so visually it wasn’t quite as attractive as planned, to put it lightly, but it was tasty. Then again, I like white chocolate and saffron panna cotta, so what do I know?

Soup/Second Starter: we had a choice of what we did for the second course, either another appetizer or a soup. Our components this time were baby eggplant and white turnips, with eight minutes from start (seeing the ingredients for the first time) to finish (putting the finished dish in front of Chef).

I did a brunoise of the veggies, sauteed them with garlic and then added chicken stock (one of the pre-made components available to us) and, at the very end, tossed in a chiffonade of the turnip leaves, which were actually quite tasty. I thought it came out ok, especially since I hate eggplant and therefore never work with it. I really liked the turnip that way, though, and would do it again in the future with some other root veggies like carrots.

Entree: our two components for this were a piece o’ dead cow (the culinary student working next to me identified it as a skirt steak) and fingerling potatoes, with 15 minutes start to finish.

I sliced the fingerlings super-thin and sauteed them with garlic, onion, rosemary, salt and olive oil, figuring that was the fastest and least fussiest way to cook them. Even though the plating is pretty lame, I think the potatoes turned out well, if a bit oily. If you're thinking hey, that's adding more than one component, we could cheat by adding a component of "seasoning" which is how I classified the garlic, onion and rosemary.

The skirt steak was a joke, because I have only ever made one steak in my life, and that was in my culinary class for bakers that I took last year. I rarely, rarely eat red meat (though when I do rarely eat it, I eat it rare!) and I never make it myself. That’s what chefs are for, no? Princess doesn’t like getting her hands bloody.

Of course, I was not the only one who felt this way. Eunice was there and raised quite the stink about being a vegetarian and refusing to touch the meat, blah blah blah. Lord, but she did go on about it.

Anyway, I threw the steak on the grill after seasoning it with salt and pepper, but it took a hella lot longer to cook than I thought, and when I took it off with three minutes to go to do a super-quick "rest," it was still blue-red in the middle. So I sliced off a few pieces and threw them back on the grill. Not my finest moment, but then I am the Pastry Pirate after all, not the Cow Pirate.

Dessert: we had 12 minutes (Chef wanted to give us five, but the four culinary students whined about it, so he relented just to shut them up). Our two components were an Asian pear (my favorite fruit!) and baby kiwis, which I never had before working here and now love, love, love. They are awesome.

I tried the Asian pear and the kiwilettes and found they were both nice and sweet and ripe with good texture, so I made a fruit salad. The two components I added were raspberries for color and a little more flavor diversity, and a sauce that I personally loved (and ate the leftovers of). It was super simple: plain yogurt, pinch of sugar, vanilla beans scraped from a pod and the juice of a couple tablespoonfuls of minced ginger. I thought the mild kick of the ginger and the tangyness of the yogurt, tamed a bit by the vanilla and sugar, went really well with the fruit. It's kind of hard to tell in the photo, but I used a tipless pastry bag to sauce the fruit in a flower shape instead of just splatting it on.

...And Another Thing

I was in a bit of a hurry to get my "Leaving Las Vegas" post up this morning, so I forgot my number one pet peeve about this place (ok, it’s technically tied for number one with the peeves about lousy drivers and speedbumps, but...):

The complete and utter lack of anything resembling a recycling program. At the hotel, at my apartment complex, in stores, anywhere you go, recycling is non-existent. It’s not even like they pretend they’re trying to recycle.

It bugs me especially at the hotel, where, as you might imagine, we generate incredible amounts of packaging trash. Big sturdy boxes that once held danish dough or bags of chocolate chips or cake circles are dumped into the trash by the score. Ditto all the plastic jugs of corn syrup and honey and olive oil. Oh, I could go on, but that won’t change anything. I asked a few of the chefs and sous chefs about it and they just shrugged.

I shudder to think it’s every hotel on the Strip generating that kind of non-recycled packaging "trash" on a daily basis.

Leaving Las Vegas

My friend Bruce asked me a month or so ago if I’d be playing Sheryl Crow’s "Leaving Las Vegas" when I drive out of Sin City. I’m not a particular fan of Crow, whom I accidentally nearly killed once backstage at a Heart concert (another story for another time), and I don’t even have that song in my collection, so the answer was no.

Instead, as I put the Strip and all those damnable California transplant drivers in my rearview mirror, I will be playing the obscure Bryan Ferry delight "This Is Tomorrow Calling." I find that’s the song I’m hearing, sometimes just in my head, whenever I set out on a new expedition. And even though my leaving Las Vegas is technically the end of a chapter, the coming months are full of challenges and unknowns, and will be an even bigger adventure.

If you don’t know the song, I recommend you find a (legal) listen online. I would provide a link here, but I don’t know how and, honestly, I’m too lazy to find out. But I love how it starts out so mellow and twangy and gradually builds to a crazy party with slide guitar and horns and more horns and back-up singers and a cowbell or two. I also, of course, love the sentiment: "This is tomorrow calling/what have I to lose?"

In any case, as I leave Las Vegas with Bryan Ferry instead of Sheryl Crow (a much better deal as I see it), I find I’m really excited. I can’t wait to see my dog Wiley again (he has been living in pampered luxury with Dr. Virago while I’ve been in Vegas). I can’t wait to finally, finally! see the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Colorado (I’m stopping on my way back home, even though it’s a day-long detour, because I’ve been obsessed with seeing it for nigh on a decade, ever since I saw a photo of it in National Geographic). And I’m looking forward to the extra-challenging eight months of classes back at cookin’ school that await me.

I have no regrets about coming out here for my 18-week externship, which itself has exceeded my expectations and been a great, if challenging, experience. But I also have no regrets about leaving Las Vegas. If I never set foot in this city again, that will be fine. I didn’t hate it, but I know it’s somewhere I could never live for more than, well, 18 weeks.

As I get ready to hit the road eastward, may I present:

Things I’ll Miss About Vegas

The Weather. While I didn’t like Vegas weather in general (see below), I will admit, after 12 consecutive winters in Moscow, upstate New York or Wisconsin, it was kinda nice not to have to touch the snow shovel, navigate icy sidewalks or watch cars slide haplessly across three snowy lanes of traffic towards me.

The Great Kafka Spirit. That’s what I called the mysterious black cat that would sit in the tree outside my kitchen window and stare at me (see photo). I named it the GKS after my friend J’s dearly departed, slightly psycho cat Kafka, and generally I didn’t mind its interest in me. Except for the early, early mornings when I’d be brewing coffee in pre-dawn darkness to get myself ready for work and GKS would scare the bejesus out of me by suddenly appearing as two yellow eyes in the window, right beside my espresso maker, with a haunting meeooowwww.

Sunflower Market. I plan on making monthly trips to the Trader Joe’s in Connecticut once I get back to school, so I won’t miss the TJ’s here... but I will miss the homey natural foods supermarket that is Sunflower, especially its great produce deals. It reminded me of the organic grocery store where I worked (and shopped) while living in Wisconsin. Plus, my apologies to people who work there, but after reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma and learning the ugly truth of Whole Foods’ embrace of industrial organic agriculture (what an oxymoron!), I can’t shop at Whole Foods anymore. And where else am I going to get my bulk red quinoa? Thank goodness for Sunflower Market. I’m sure they buy from people who torture their cows and chickens, too, but at least they have more humanely-raised food products without the distasteful Whole Foods mark-up and smug attitude.

Ali Baba. The best Lebanese food I’ve ever had (that’s saying something, too!) and far enough from the Strip that my visits there were tourist-free.

Most of my co-workers. Sure, there was the occasional bad apple, but I met a lot of people I really enjoyed working with at the hotel, from Boy Wonder the amazing young pastry chef to the Filipino master chocolatiers in the bakeshop who managed to create gorgeous showpieces while singing classic rock and doing a nonstop, raunchy comedy routine. And, but of course, I will miss Chef Lumiere.

The Stuff. Pure and simple, I know I will never again have access to so many different ingredients and high-tech equipment and gadgets. Even at school, the chefs have budgets. Here? I’m sure there’s a budget somewhere for the bakeshop, but this is Vegas, baby. You want one piece of a fruit that’s out of season? Sure! We’ll order a case for you from Chile or Macau or Pluto. Use what you need and don’t worry about the rest.

The Surroundings. As much as I disliked the city itself, I loved being able to go 15 or 20 miles out of town and suddenly be in empty, desolately beautiful wilderness. I’ll miss day trips to Red Rock and Lake Mead, and weekend trips to Cathedral Gorge, Zion, Great Basin and all the other wonderful national and state parks within a day’s drive.

The Speed Limit. Speaking as someone who is still deeply bitter about a speeding ticket she received in 1992 for driving 41 miles per hour in a 40 mph zone, I will miss not Vegas driving itself (oh please Lord, never again), but the highway drives, where 70 mph is the legal limit and the cops don’t really notice you unless you’re 20 or 30 miles over it. I also love the straight, flat, empty roads where, aside from the occasional jackrabbit with a deathwish, you don’t need to worry about hitting something if you’re trying to break the sound barrier.

Things I So Won’t Miss About Vegas

The Weather. Yes, I know I’m leaving before it gets "really" hot, but aside from the occasional supercool windstorm, I’ve been less than impressed with the sameness of the Vegas climate – and with locals whining about it being too cold or too hot even though there’s about a three-degree range of difference.

The Dry Desert Air. I will not miss my biweekly nose bleed or the cracks and canyons carved into my desiccated digits, or the haystack that is my hair despite constant application of moisturizers and conditioners.

The Service Industry Attitude. I once worked with a guy named Mark who was boisterous and extroverted among his co-workers but, whenever we had to spend time with people from another department, he became aloof and exceedingly cranky. I asked him about it once and he said "I don’t get paid enough to be friendly." I thought of his comment often here in Vegas where, when people are on the clock and have the chance of hustling a tip off you, they are so happy to see you and so polite and just so thrilled that you have chosen to be in their presence. Off the clock, they’ll let the door slam in your face or cut you off in the employee parking lot. I can understand the strain of being perky for eight or ten hours at a stretch, but common courtesy requires very little effort.

The Driving. Oh, Sweet Baby Jesus. Not since I lived in Moscow have I witnessed such an inattentive, poorly-trained, clueless and angry driving populace. At least in Moscow, where an estimated 70% of the adult population is alcoholic (when I lived there, anyway), they have the excuse of being drunk behind the wheel. In Vegas, while I’m sure a chunk of the population is on meth or the chronic or coke or Diet Coke or whatever, I don’t think the numbers are that high (no pun intended). There’s no excuse for the reckless and often downright zany driving habits of this city. When I’ve mentioned this to co-workers, a few have said "oh, it’s so much better here than where I’m from," prompting me to ask where they’re from.

The answer is invariably L.A.

I rest my case.

California Transplant Drivers. Yes, I’m singling out those Golden State drivers because I believe they, more than meth or cell phones, are the root of driving evil in Vegas. I always notice license plates, and from my earliest days here, I saw Cali plates nine times out of ten on the cars of the people turning right from the left lane across four other lanes, the people backing up in the middle lane of the freeway and then cutting across traffic to get to the exit ramp, the people merrily speeding the wrong way on a one-way road, usually with a cell phone in one hand and a cigarette in the other, the people applying make-up while driving 20 miles over the speed limit, hogging two lanes of traffic and, just yesterday, the guy who slammed on his horn when I slowed down in a 10 mph zone to let pedestrians in the pedestrian crosswalk in front of me go by. After honking, he swerved around me and cut me off, nearly mowing down three of the pedestrians in the process, then continued down the street at a 50 mph clip... all of about 200 feet, so he could come to a screeching halt at a red light. It wasn’t the red of the light that stopped him (Californians seem to view red as an attractive accent color for home decor and nothing more). It was the bus and truck stopped in the lanes ahead, blocking his way, the inconsiderate bastards!

Speed Bumps. Or, as I like to call them, The Devil’s Road Warts. Las Vegas planners and parking lot designers seem to think that the more speed bumps they stick everywhere, the better the drivers will be. I believe the opposite is true. I think even decent drivers (such as, oh, say, myself) become so enraged by the bumps that we turn from defensive drivers into offensive drivers hell-bent on getting home and away from the goddamn bumps and Californian drivers as fast as possible. I wouldn’t mind them so much if they were all carefully made and maintained bumps, but too many I’ve encountered have been more like speed curbs. And does one lane in a parking lot really need six speed bumps when everyone is cutting across the open spaces to avoid them anyway?

Road Food

I just made one of my favorite road snacks as I get ready to leave town, and thought I’d share the recipe, such as it is. You can add a drizzle of olive oil in the tossing stage, but personally I like them oil-free because I find the steering wheel gets greasy if I’m eating them when driving.

I also like the drier, crispier texture of the oil-free variety, though I’ll admit the "mouthfeel" of the oiled ones is superior. In any case, these are a great and much healthier substitute for peanuts or potato chips.

Roasted Garbanzos

1. Preheat oven to 400F.

2. Open a can of garbanzo beans, aka chickpeas, and drain in a colander or mesh strainer, tossing a bit. I often add either finely chopped rosemary or curry power to taste, though I also like them plain or with just a sprinkle of sea salt. If you’re adding oil, now’s the time to do it, while tossing. If you add the oil once they’re in the pan, they get too greasy.

3. Take a non-stick sheet pan or one covered with parchment paper, spread drained beans in a single layer.

4. Put in oven. Every ten minutes or so, give the pan a shake. If you notice any beans sticking, free them with a spatula. Rotate pan as necessary. The beans usually take about half an hour or a little more, depending on your oven and how dark you like them. Personally, I like them golden with some darker golden-brown spots, but just keep tasting one or two as you check them until they’re a consistency you like. The longer they’re in the oven, the drier and crispier they get.

5. Cool and store at room temperature. I can’t tell you how long they’ll last, though, because I usually wind up eating them all within a couple hours.


Monday, April 16, 2007

Zut Alors!

After working the 2-10pm shift for the past two weeks, including last night, I had to switch this morning to 8am-4pm. I managed to get to work without caffeine, too. Technically I'm working in the office, learning What Chefs Do All Day (lots of paperwork, interrupted by tension-filled meetings and opportunities to yell at underlings), though I spent most of the morning plating cakes for a monstrous convention of 16,000 people that starts in a couple days.

The highlight of the day, without question, was nearly being killed by Chef Lumiere.

Okay, so there's a touch of hyperbole in that, since I didn't actually fall out of the golf cart he was driving when he swerved to avoid the UPS truck, but still.

He decided to take me to the daily meeting he has with various catering managers and another chef, during which they review all the convention and party orders. The meeting itself was interesting and helpful to me -- helpful because it confirmed that, while I might work in one right after graduation, I do not want a career in hotels. Too many meetings populated by too many cranky people. The other chef there, for example, muttered under his breath much of the time and prefaced every comment with a statement such as "Even though I'm completely disgusted with this group," or "I'm too frustrated to even ask why, but..."

Ok, we get it.

Chef Lumiere was his jolly Lumiere self, however, and noted later "I come with my smile, and I go with my smile, eh?"

While we're on the topic of coming and going...

Chef decided we should take the electric golf cart to and from the meeting, which was at the opposite end of the property. My job was to hold his clipboards and pray to baby Jesus that I not get killed four days before the end of my externship. He makes me look like a pokey driver. We hurtled through the corridors, swerving around forklift drivers and bumping down ramps. A woman who knew him (funny how Chef seems to know all the ladies) shouted "be careful with him!" to me, while a French baker we both know shouted either encouragement or warning as we rocketed past.

"Why people say I am not a good driver, because I am French?" Chef pondered as we careened past a pallet of wine bottles. "You know, in France, we have very narrow streets. More narrow than this, eh?"

"Yes, Chef."

"I am a very good driver."

"Uh, yes, Chef."

When we got back from the meeting, miraculously whole, he asked if I was ready for my presentation tomorrow. What presentation, I asked. The tasting for me and Chef Olmos, but of course.


I told him I thought, since all of them were there on Saturday, that that had been my final tasting.

"Ah, okay, as you like," he said, feigning disappointment.

I couldn't resist.

"I could make more white chocolate and saffron panna cotta, if you want," I offered.

I think Chef actually blanched. "No! Not that again!"

These Kids Today

Ok, it's official. I’m old.

Two more students from my school arrived last week to start their 18-week externship. One strikes me as rather Forrest Gumpish, but I actually like her better than the other one. I tried to engage the Other One in conversation and quickly realized she was typical of the students I’ve encountered at school (which is why I’ve made no friends there, aside from a few of the chefs).

I've started to wonder if it's a socio-economic thing or a generational thing. They are, after all, the first generation raised with the Internet from their grade school days, and I can’t help but wonder if that hasn’t had a negative impact on their social skills.

I am already damn sure that the whole "My Child is A Very Special Student At XYZ School" bumpersticker culture has filled them with delusions of grandeur.

Eunice (not her real name, but I don’t like the name, so it fits well), pudgy cheeks and chunky black eyewear aside, has an air of coddled privilege about her. I thought I’d be nice when we were both working in the finishing room together, so I asked her the usual where are you from and so on. She would answer and then fall silent. I thought oh, ok, maybe she just doesn’t want to talk, but when I looked up, I saw her staring at me expectantly, as if "I am prepared for your next question about my fabulous life." There was no concept of conversational give and take with her, and I wonder, having met so many teens and early 20-somethings like that, whether it’s just immaturity or coming of age in an Internet culture where face-to-face conversation is unpracticed.

I know I was hopelessly self-centered at that age, but, even being gawky and anxious as well, I could still carry on a conversation, especially if someone were leading me along, as I was with Eunice.

Later in the day, I saw her wandering the bakery with that "where is it?" look on her face that I know well (having worn it for most of my first month there). I asked what she was looking for and she said "gold cake circles." I pointed out exactly where they were and she started heading toward them. I waited, curious. And waited. Finally, I said "and you’re welcome." She didn’t even acknowledge that at first, but about five seconds later, she said "oh." Ten seconds after that, she added "uh... thank you?"

That’s the right response, sweetie, just half a minute too late.

Later that night, stuck again in the finishing room with Eunice, she mentioned she had apprenticed to a French baker but that she hated him because he was rich. "I hate rich people," she declared with the certainty that only someone who has not lived long in the world can have.

Not five minutes later, oblivious to the irony, when I asked if she’d found a decent apartment here in Vegas, she replied: "Oh, it’s ok, but I didn’t find it. My parents flew out here to find one for me. They wanted someplace safe. It’s $3000 a month, but I get free limo service and cable. There’s also a jacuzzi."

Yes, Eunice. Rich people are quite hate-able.

And no, the $3000 is not a typo. Hearing it nearly gave me, at my advanced age, a myocardial infarction. Her mummy and daddy are paying more per month for her apartment than I’ll pay for my $625 a month one bedroom during my entire stay in Vegas.

I will say she is very good at piping. Maybe one day I'll hire her as my cake decorator. I'll be sure to pay her a low wage so that there's no risk of her joining the hated rich, and I'll keep her locked in the basement so she doesn't have to interact with other humans of any class.

Going Down In Flames

In addition to the Chef’s Table tastings we do every several weeks with other students, the baking and pastry externs at the hotel have to do a final tasting, alone, for the grand poobah executive chef (known hereafter as Poobah), the executive pastry chef, whom I’ll call Chef Olmos (because he reminds me of actor Edward James Olmos with his quiet, introverted intensity) and the executive pastry sous chef, the Frenchman of a Thousand Moods, whom I’ll call Chef Lumiere, because his outrageous accent reminds me of the candlestick in Disney’s "Beauty and the Beast."

About a month ago, I started thinking about what I was going to do. I had a couple ideas, but then I realized that I hadn’t done anything with chocolate, not even as a garnish, for my previous tastings. I don’t particularly like chocolate, I don’t really like working with it and, quite frankly, I’m a little afraid of it. There are so many things that can go wrong.
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As my favorite chef at school said of it: "Chocolate is like a wild stallion. It will do what it wants with you."

I hate being afraid of anything, so I decided that for my final tasting I was going to take the bull by the horns or the wild stallion by the ears or whatever metaphor applies ... I was going to do an all-chocolate tasting. And I thought, if I go down in flames, so be it.

Then I thought, "going down in flames" ... what an excellent theme.

And it turned out to be a prophetic one, too.

I didn’t have much time to test things out or prep, just half an hour here or there in the last week while working PM production, when the sous chef in charge would say go ahead, do your own thing for a bit. I had ideas, but no time to really refine them, so I winged it. I did a couple test batches of panna cotta at home, then went on instinct baking off a cake very, very loosely based on a Charlie Trotter recipe I found (I ripped off his idea of using carrot puree to make it moister).

I did come in early last Sunday to spend an hour with Boy Wonder, the pastry chef in the fancy-pantsiesed of restaurants, on whom I have posted before. We had been emailing back and forth and he offered to show me how he did molded chocolates. He is such a great teacher; after an hour of chocolate work with him I felt I could actually pull it off.

Friday was my day off, but I spent five hours in the bakery anyway, as it was my only block of time to get things done before the big day. Chef Lumiere saw me (he had my tasting moved from Friday to Saturday so I wouldn’t have to come in on my day off) and stormed over.

"[Pirate]! This is your day off!" he exclaimed.

"I’m not really here," I replied, trying the ol’ Jedi mind trick.

"Aha! Then I will not shake your hand because I cannot see you! You are invisible!" he said, chuckling in his tres French way as he walked off.

Well, Saturday was supposed to be Chef Lumiere’s day off, yet when I arrived at 10 a.m., four hours before my 2-10 p.m. shift (and before my 12:30 p.m. tasting), there he was. I said "Chef! You’re here on your day off!’

"No! You do not see me! I am invisible!" he replied and turned away.

I love that French nutball.

I don’t know if he came in to be at my tasting (I doubt it) or to deal with some paperwork or personnel issues (far more likely), but the beauty of it was, because he was there, I won’t have to do a second tasting on Tuesday just for him, which had been part of the plan.

So, I am down to the wire plating everything at 12:15. I had a last-minute crisis... my Swiss meringue was flopping about in a nasty way, so I scrapped it and instead of topping my chocolate mousse dome with meringue that was to be spiked and torched to look like flames, I went with framing it with fresh cut strawberries instead. Lame, I know, but I felt it went with the visual "down in flames" theme.

I was really, really happy with my chocolates appearance-wise. Shiny, very thin shells and only a few had a couple air bubbles. I had painted the molds with cocoa butter, too (first time ever), and was ok with the results. Not chocolatier quality, but screw it, I think they were damn good for a first-ever attempt.

I had a last-minute attack plating my panna cotta, going a little crazy with the dried hibiscus before grabbing another one and starting from scratch with a more minimalist, classy approach. See below for the comparison photo of overkill and understatement.

I was super happy with my volcano cake, too. All in all, I felt good about things. Le menu:

Extra chocolates are in the background. In foreground, clockwise from top, my Devil’s Food and Ancho Chile cake with Carrot Caramel and Honey-Ancho Tuile, the last minute crisis milk chocolate mousse dome with strawberries and tamarind sauce, the best of my chocolates (the white is a lime and Limoncello white chocolate and the dark is a Port Wine and dark chocolate). And finally, my white chocolate and saffron panna cotta with rosewater, mango and hibiscus.

Chef Poobah was not there at the appointed time of 12:30 p.m. He was not there five nor ten minutes later. I casually walked past his office and saw him working on the computer, oblivious. I mentioned this to Chef Lumiere, who hunted him down (not that hard, since he was, after all, at his computer... I think he forgot, since his assistant, who tells him what to do, was not in on a Saturday) and brought him over as I was trying to revive the desserts which, by then, had gone cold or warm or generally wilty.

Poobah didn’t seem to want to be there. I explained my concept, the whole being afraid of chocolate but taking the wild stallion by the horns and going down in flames if need be, and he sighed wearily. He scraped off the fresh strawberries on my mousse and stuck his spoon into it without enthusiasm. No comment. He bit into the white chocolate truffle and put the bitten remaining half back on the plate. No comment. He tried a corner of my volcano cake. No comment. He shoved aside the hibiscus garnish of my panna cotta and took a small spoonful.


I thought he was going to spit it out.

"That’s wrong. That’s just... funky," he muttered, shaking his head and throwing out his plastic tasting spoon as if it were no longer fit for use with food.

Chef Lumiere and Chef Olmos followed silently in his wake, tasting small bits politely but saying nothing.

Finally, Chef Lumiere turned to me and asked "what gave you zee idea to pair saffron with zee white chocolat?" in the same tone that, say, an ER doctor might ask a newly admitted patient "what gave you the idea to trim your nose hairs with a weedwhacker?"

I wanted to say "what gave you rocket scientists the idea to taste a white chocolate dish immediately after a very strong dark chocolate dish, you numbskulls?! Do you go home and guzzle a bottle of merlot before cracking open the Riesling? I think not!"

Instead, I smiled and said "It was an experiment."

"Ah, well, zat is one experiment you probably should not repeat," Chef Lumiere said, chuckling. "But I admire you for working with something you were afraid of-"

"You better not be afraid of chocolate, it’s what you’re going to be doing 95% of the time!" snapped Chef Poobah.

I wanted to say "who woke you up by peeing on your head this morning, jackass?" but instead I smiled and nodded, adding "That was the whole point of doing this," with the "jackass" merely implied.

(As a sidenote, if I respect a chef, I have no problem taking crap from him or her. But if it's a chef I don't respect, it is so hard for me to keep my mouth shut and not give as good as I'm getting. I know this will be a problem for me, so I'm trying to get it under control.)

Chef Olmos, ever the quietly supportive one, turned to Poobah and said "she has been such a hard worker, and has so much enthusiasm." Later, after it was all over, he ate more of the chocolates and complimented me on the thinness of the shell and the lime-Limoncello flavor (the port wine one didn’t work out so well. When I took a sample up to Boy Wonder, he suggested next time reducing the port and steeping it with spices before adding it to the ganache, which would have given it a lot more flavor). Chef Olmos is a guy who has won international chocolate competitions, and Boy Wonder is effortlessly perfect in every aspect of pastry, so their comments had a lot more weight with me than those of Poobah (I mean, really... who tries a white chocolate after a dark chocolate? Was he raised by wolves or something?)

I think my ego might have taken a bashing had I not seen what happened at the tasting of the student here before me. I was only about six weeks into my externship when the other student did a really striking, competition-style presentation with a showpiece and a cake and everything, all perfect, for his final tasting.

Chef Poobah grimaced, actually threw the guy’s sugar garnish across the table as if in disgust and poked at his entrement with a look normally seen on the faces of men visiting their proctologists. I don’t know if Poobah sees these final tastings as his Gordon Ramsay moment or if he happened to be in a bad mood or what, but quite frankly, going in I wasn’t expecting him to be positive, so I wasn’t disappointed.

In fact, I was crazily exhilarated. I honestly didn’t care what Poobah thought, because I knew he wouldn’t like it. I was excited that Chefs Olmos and Lumiere had found positive things to say, and, quite frankly, I was thrilled with the way my chocolates and the volcano cake turned out.

The culinary chef who leads our Chef’s Tables also attended the tasting, though he stayed in the background and didn’t taste anything until the other chefs had dispersed and I was left to clean up.

We tasted the panna cotta together. I was worried that maybe it had gone bad or something in the 48 hours since I’d made and frozen it, but it tasted fine to me. I mentioned that to him and he said "everyone has different tastes, don’t worry about it." Later, when one of the sous chefs whom I really like asked how it went and I told him disastrously, he shook his head and said "[Poobah] needs to open his mind." (Poobah is notorious for hating anything that is not plain vanilla or milk chocolate or some other standard dessert flavor. Even though I knew this, not for a moment did I think of creating a tasting to please him. I have a whole career ahead of me of seeking to please people. This was my moment to go a little crazy with the saffron and the ancho.)

So, to sum up: screw Poobah. I learned a lot, I pulled it off with little time and recovered from the last minute meringue crisis, and dammit, I think it was pretty good. I deserve credit for daring to ride the wild stallion.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

More Evidence in Speed Demon's Defense

Today is my last day off here in Vegas. Tomorrow is technically a day off, though I have to sneak into the bakeshop to prep for Saturday's tasting. Chef didn't give me time to work on my tasting menu, but he also said he didn't want me to come in on my day off (ze French... zey are so, how you say, impossible...), so I'm going to sneak in and, if he confronts me, try pulling a Jedi mind trick and telling him "this is not the pastry pirate you are looking for."


Today I took my car in, finally, to the garage, to have a professional determine how to keep it in one piece on the trip back East. Some of you may recall that, on the drive out here, I hit a tumbleweed in Colby, KS (which sounds like a line from a country song to me). The villianous shrubbery ripped out the bolts in my catalytic converter heat shield, which I then dragged along the asphalt for several hours until, in a moment of silence between William Shatner and Bright Eyes on my mix tape, I noticed a Horrible Screeching, Scraping Sound.

A truck stop mechanic in Denver was able to jerry-rig the shield to the frame of my car with a wire hanger (really), which has held in the four months that I've spent looking for a mechanic interested in repairing it properly.

The mechanic that one of the bakers put me in touch with seemed unnaturally sincere and helpful for a car mechanic, so I asked him to give the car a lookover in general while he was repairing the shield and putting in a new turn signal switch (for the past week, my left turn signal will not shut off. While I'm sure it has irritated many a Vegas driver behind me, nothing can describe the heights (depths?) of vexation I have had over it, as I am one of those obsessive signal-using types).

He pronounced my car in excellent shape and expressed amazement over the terrific condition my brakes are in, with less than 50% wear after 77,000 miles. He said most people here in Vegas have to replace their brakes after 20-30,000 miles (though I believe that says more about the idiot Vegas driving conditions than anything else).

He said I must be a very good driver. I admitted that I do have a lead foot, and it's not unusual for me to take my Focus into the triple-digit mph range, especially out here on these deserted, perfectly flat, perfectly straight Western highways.

"Oh, that don't do nothing bad to the car. In fact, it's good for it to let it run like that," he said. "But your brakes are really in beautiful shape. I can't believe it, with 77,000 miles on the car. You must be an excellent driver."

Yes, yes I am. Me and Rainman.
My long-suffering car Kali, in a rare moment of motionlessness (near Bryce Canyon, Utah):

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

A Stopover in Fast Non-Food Nation

Last night after work, a bunch of us went to an authentic English pub (authentic in the sense that it was run by Brits who had decent beer on tap and football, as in soccer, on all the "tellys"...). As an aside, one thing I like about the culinary industry is its internationality. At our table, we had one American (me), three Koreans, one Indian, two Croatians and one Frenchman, who was married to one of the Koreans. It was fun how all of us listened intently to each other, decoding the various accents, or how the three Koreans started talking in their native language while the Croatians and I spoke in German (the Croatians, two brothers, lived in Germany as refugees in the early 90s and have some pretty hilarious slice of life stories, including the embarrassment of being a teenager all hot for a local girl and inviting her back to his home... in a tent city).

We broke up around three in the morning (not as scandalous as it sounds since all of us work swing shift). On the drive home, I decided tonight was Del Taco night. I live behind a Del Taco and for the past four months, people have been telling me I have to try it, it’s so much better than Taco Bell, I’m so lucky to live near one that’s open 24 hours. I’ve been telling myself I really should try it once.

So I pulled in to the 24-hour drive-thru and ordered what I felt was a selection representative of the Del Taco repertoire: a chicken and cheddar quesadilla, a crispy fish taco and a small order of chili cheddar fries. I took it home (half a block away), already unnerved by the weird chemical grease smell emanating from the bag.

It was beyond horrific. It wasn’t that it was gross and greasy, it was the sheer un-foodness of it all. It had no flavor, not even of salt, and everything was sort of thrown together with complete indifference. The textures were plastic (the tasteless cheese), soggy (the fries), juiceless and grainy (the meat and fish-like product).

I know, I know, you’re rolling your eyes, thinking to yourself "what do you want, it’s fast food prepared by some minimum wage-earning teenager," but the foreign quality of it was nothing short of alarming. I thought it was kind of ironic that I’d been comfortable hanging out with a multi-nationality group for four hours, yet I was disoriented and unsettled by a bag of good ol’ American food.

I ate the fish taco, which seemed the least alien due to the presence of a shred of lettuce and what I think were bean sprouts. But I tossed the rest after venturing a sample bite, then got up in the middle of the night to walk it to the dumpster outside because I couldn’t stand the malingering faux-paprika chemical stink. My gut roiled with heartburn for hours.

I bring all of this up, obvious though it may be to you, because it was a revelation on many different levels for me. I don’t eat fast food. I stopped at a Quizno’s in Kansas on the drive out here when I ran out of road food, but prior to that, my most recent such venture was to get a happy meal at McDonald’s last July because I wanted the little stuffed pirate skeleton doll that came with it as a "Pirates of the Caribbean" promotion. Wiley got the hamburger (except for the pickle, which I ate), I drank the diet Coke I ordered with it and then threw out the fries.

Before that pirate-related McD’s stop, I honestly can’t remember the last time I ate fast food.

I have wondered from time to time what I’m missing, especially when I remember with fondness the Taco Bell 7-Layer Burrito, which I had on maybe a weekly basis in the early 90s. I remember it as a wonderful concoction of soft flour burrito, creamy refried beans, crispy lettuce and firm diced tomatoes, thick sour cream and a tasty blend of cheeses, but now I wonder if that’s how it really tasted.

I realized tonight no, I’m not missing anything in terms of taste or satisfying experience.

Moreover, I thought about the alarming number of Americans who eat at these places regularly, or, worse yet, feed their kids there several times a week. Not to get on my spinster high horse or anything, but I think it is nothing short of criminal negligence to feed your kids fast food, even as a "treat." It’s horrific on so many levels, from supporting the grotesque and unnatural practices of industrial agriculture to training your kid to think of cheese as a piece of tasteless, vaguely chewy plastic, with nary a vegetable in sight (no, three shards of iceberg lettuce doesn’t count). Of course, I don't have whiny kids, so I can say this with unmitigated self-righteousness.

As for the argument "well, it’s all people can afford," that’s utter crap. I paid $7.06 for three items which, had I eaten them, would have been about one meal for maybe 1.5 people. For $7.06 you could feed a family of four or even eight with an easy to prepare, fast "real" meal, be it rice and beans, tuna and spinach over pasta or whatever.

I could understand the argument "but it’s so tasty!" if someone were defending fast food that had some sensory merit, but the food I had was tasteless by any standard. I have had better meals served in-flight on Aeroflot.

I really want to know why these places are so popular, why people who work in "fine dining" kitchens, preparing "fine dining" food, have been telling me to go to Del Taco because it’s so great.

I’m not coming at this as a food snob. Hey, I love Kraft Mac N Cheese – the stuff with the "cheese" sauce that comes as a powder in an envelope, not that high-class squeezy Velveeta stuff. Give me a choice between a Valhrona chocolate souffle and a Reese’s peanut butter cup and, no contest, I will leave the souffle to collapse forlornly, untouched, every time. I think foie gras tastes disgusting and that truffles, black or white, are supremely overrated. I don’t care what score Wine Enthusiast gave some freakin’ fancy-ass Chardonnay – if it’s oaky, I’m not drinking it.

So, my bona fides as a non-food snob established, I really want to know why millions of Americans waste millions of dollars on food that is not fit for consumption, whether your yardstick is taste, nutritional value, or environmental/social impact. Is it because they don’t know better, or do they just not care? Are they so shut off from reality/pressed for time/uncreative/complacent that a gristly, plasticky thing called a quesadilla passes as sustenance?

The older and more ornery I get, the more I feel like an alien dropped onto a distant planet with no plan to phone home.

That, and I also think, remembering how long I had to wait because of the line of cars at the Del Taco drive-through: cull the herd, man. Cull the freakin’ herd.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Recipe of Necessity

With less than two weeks to go before I leave Vegas, I am in the middle of the ritual of Paring Down The Pantry. I hate to waste food, so for the past several days I’ve been trying to put together meals out of what’s on hand to use up what I’ve got.

Today’s menu for brunch (the only meal I wind up eating when I work swing shift, because by the end of the day I’m just not hungry for much more than tea): Mexican Squash (essentially short, stumpy, speckled zucchini) stuffed with Buffalo, Red Quinoa, Garlic and Scallions, and Roasted Tomatoes stuffed with Red Quinoa, Pinjur (a spicy red pepper salsa-like thing) and Gran Padano.

Can you tell I’ve got an excess of red quinoa on hand? Actually, I love the stuff, especially for stuffing or instead of rice because of the texture and nutty taste. My cobbled-together meal was actually quite yummy.. Here’s a shot of the leftovers:

Not particularly pretty, but with a nice garnish it would certainly be serve-able to guests.

I finished with a piece of each of the test batches I did for my upcoming final tasting for the chefs: what I think is a highly successful white chocolate panna cotta with saffron and hibiscus and a less-than-successful dark chocolate and port wine panna cotta. Yeah, I freakin’ love making panna cotta. It’s easy, it always turns out well for me, it keeps forever beautifully in the freezer and you’ve got an instant elegant presentation if you put it in a mold to set, plus once you’ve got a great basic recipe, it’s a blank canvas that you can really have fun with.

Just For Kicks

Of all the Vegas souvenirs I've acquired these past four months, I've got to say these shoes are my favorite, partly because of the thrill of not only finding something in my circus freak size (women's 13/men's 11) but also on clearance. They're also my favorite souvenir from here because they're so... Vegas. They say "Vegas" even more than my beloved Liberace-in-sequined-hot-pants kitchen magnet.

Yet, fabulous as they are, they languish unseen by anyone but me, largely because they are highly impractical for either working in a kitchen or hiking, the two things I've spent 99% of my waking hours doing while out here.

So I feel obliged to show these babies off to someone, in this case, you, dear reader. And yes, I can walk in them. Quite well, as long as the ground is level and not a highly polished floor or anything.

I think the goldfish pajamas are a nice touch.

Friday, April 6, 2007

I Can't Drive 55

I now have an environmental rationale for my lead foot.

I conducted a semi-scientific experiment driving the 800-miles (including detours) to and from Great Basin National Park, most of it along deserted highways. (Great Basin itself is on what's billed as "The Loneliest Highway in the U.S." and I'd tend to agree. I went hours without seeing another living soul, and gas stations were up to 200 miles apart.)

In Vegas stop-start-swerve driving, my Ford Focus gets a paltry 20-22 mpg.

Driving at 55, mileage goes up to about 28 mpg.

At 70 mph (the legal limit on most Nevada highways, God bless 'em), I get 30 mpg.

Here's the whopper... at a speed consistently above 80 mph (ranging from 80 to, uhm, 100 mph, but it was all in the name of science, you understand), Kali (yes, I named my Focus after the Hindu goddess of destruction) checked in at an astounding 36 mpg.

It's clear. Sammy Hagar and I drive excessively fast to maximize the efficiency of our use of fossil fuels.

I'm going to try that the next time I'm pulled over... Honestly officer, I'm just doing my part to save the planet.

Pastry Chef Fetishes

A brief sidenote about something I have noticed: without exception, all the pastry chefs and committed pastry cooks I’ve met ("committed" in the sense that it’s their passion, not the people just doing it as a job) have three fetishes: Sharpies, thermometers and containers.

Ask a pastry chef for something to label a container of creme anglaise with and you’ll likely be presented with a range of colors, tip widths and styles (retractable or old school cap? Full-size or mini?) of Sharpie markers, always the brand name, too, never some generic rip-off. Every pastry chef and committed pastry cook (PC/CPC for short) I know carries at least one Sharpie in his or her sleeve pocket, and has a stash in his or her kit.

PC/CPCs are also like a kitten with twine when presented with a thermometer, specifically the point and shoot laser thermometers. Everyone from the fantastically talented master bakers I’ve worked with in the bakery to my French Chef of a Thousand Moods will pick up the thermometer and, while waiting for the sugar to cook or the chocolate to temper, will start methodically registering the temperature of everything within the laser’s range: the chocolate, the marble counter, the can of pineapple nearby, his arm, my forehead, the ceiling tiles and so forth.

Containers are another lure. This includes anything that could be a container, such as packaging or even PVC pipes. PC/CPCs collect them, nay, hoard them, planning for some future use. The executive chef of the bakery at the hotel, for example, watched a few of us unpack pre-molded truffle shells, came over and, there’s no other word for it, caressed the little cheap, thin plastic cases they’d been shipped in, then told us to set them aside for him. They’re like sharks, always hunting for something that can be used to mold chocolate or shape a tuille.

I say this having a kitchen full of Potential Containers That Might Be Useful, all sorted into plastic baskets that are, yes, labeled with Sharpies.

I don’t have the point and shoot thermometer. Yet.

Attack of the Crepuscular Cows

Today’s word is crepuscular, which means hunting at dawn and twilight. (I learned that reading the Great Basin National Park newsletter.)

On the way back to Vegas from Great Basin, I made a couple detours to check out things I knew I wouldn’t have the chance to see again during my Vegas stay. One stop was Boot Hill Cemetery, in the ramshackle Old West mining town of Pioche. According to local lore, during the silver mining boom of the 1870s, more than 70 men were "killed with their boots on" before anyone died of natural causes in the then-newly founded town, and most were buried in Boot Hill.

The graves, or at least those that remain identifiable in the scraggly, treeless field, were lined with stones and marked with pieces of wood, most of which had broken or been worn down with time and the elements. This one looked suspiciously new, though I think it was probably just redone for the tourists’ sake.

In case you can't make it out, it reads:

Morgan Courtney
Feared By Some
Respected By Few
Detested By Others
Shot in Back
5 Times
From Ambush

His neighbor, John Lundh, died "in a dispute over a dog," while another marker simply said "Never Knew His Name. Shot to Death."

After Boot Hill, I made an 80-mile detour to the dusty, rather sad little town of Rachel. The only thing that brings people to Rachel is the fact that it is the nearest settlement to Groom Lake, also known as Area 51, the super-secret (only everyone knows about it) military installation where they keep all the aliens, UFOs, Jimmy Hoffa, the recipe for the orange powder in Kraft Macaroni 'n' Cheese and so on. Here’s a shot of the Groom Lake area.

Rachel was made famous when Fox Mulder visited in "The X-Files," but it’s clear that the end of the show brought the end of tourist traffic, aside from the occasional visitor like myself, who stopped for exactly three minutes to buy a couple postcards and take some photos.

Sadly, about 20 miles outside Rachel, just at the turn-off for an unmarked gravel road that leads to Groom Lake, I became a murderer.

I hit a beautiful, lithe jackrabbit. I swerved to avoid it, but it feinted and then darted right into my front bumper. If nothing else, I am certain its death was instant and that it didn’t suffer too much, but as you might imagine, it put me in a down mood for the rest of the trip.

The only other unsettling thing about my detour to Groom Lake was the number of cows roaming the two-lane highway as dusk fell on the desert. Usually, when you see the "Open Range" warning signs, you see the cows a mile or more off the road, but here, in no less than three places, cows were walking on or beside the road, at a time of day when most normal cows have already, well, gone home for the night.

Clearly they were government surveillance agents monitoring the outer Area 51 perimeter.

It’s the only possible explanation, of course, and it fits nicely with my personal conspiracy theory that cows are not to be trusted. When I look into their eyes, their cold, dead eyes like those of the Great White shark, I see no love for others. I don’t like the way they stare. I don’t like the way they pretend to be chewing when I’m sure they’re plotting some major takeover. I worry that the heavy use of antibiotics in industrial agriculture is creating supercows that will be impervious to conventional weaponry when we try to defend ourselves during the coming Bovine Revolution.

But I digress. Let’s just say that it’s the devil’s work to have that many stomachs. It just ain’t right.

Here is a shot of one of the government agents, taken from the safety of my car.

God save us.

The Cave of Cakes

While visiting Great Basin, I did the ranger-led tour of Lehman Caves, which are "highly decorated," cave talk for every inch being covered with stalactites, stalagmites, parachutes and shields. Shields are a very rare formation, known to be in only 68 of the more than 40,000 caves in the U.S. They look like two cymbals stuck together and grow out of cracks through which water seeps. They can be tiny or giant, and grow at all angles, sometimes coming straight out of the floor.

While I’ve been in decorated caves before, this one just blew me away with the sheer number and variation of formations, including this spiky stalactite.

It looked to me like the spine of some alien... In fact, a lot of what we saw looked like something designed by Geiger.

The cave also made me hungry. Specifically, it filled me with a hunger to do a wedding cake for a spelunking couple, in the shape of one of the formations such as those below:

When I get back to school, one of the first classes I’ll be taking is special occasion cakes, which includes a project designing your own "theme" cake.

Helllloooo, Cave Cake.

Damn Global Warming. Stupid Tent Campers.

I made one last weekend trip (yes, this was my weekend... I never work "normal" days or hours) to the last remaining national park on my to-do list while I’m out here in Nevada: Great Basin National Park.

Great Basin’s Mount Wheeler, the second tallest peak in the state (after Mount Charleston, which is just outside Vegas), used to be famous for having the only glacier in the continental U.S.

Well, not anymore.

The glacier is all but gone. When I asked a ranger to point it out to me, she said "oh, we don’t even call it a glacier now. It’s that little trickle of ice over there." Between the poor light (it was cloudy during my visit) and sad little "trickle," I didn’t even bother to take a photo.

The park was still beautiful, and the following morning I did a great hike at dawn through alpine meadow and aspen groves, some of which, alas, were being destroyed by what the rangers told me was a beetle infestation. They must be pretty big, violent beetles, because I thought it looked almost like the trees had been struck by lightning the way the bark was torn open (see photo).

That dawn hike, through the lovely and serene Pole Canyon in case you’re planning any trips of your own, was a good antidote to my run-in the previous afternoon with an RV guy. It was at the general store in nearby Baker, though I really think of it as more of a specific store, since it had an odd inventory that consisted mostly of 20 different kinds of beer and six different kinds of crackers.

While I was checking out, the guy in line behind me struck up a conversation with the woman at the register, complaining about how cold it had been camping the night before.

"Are you in a tent?" she asked.

"What? Hell, no! You gotta be stupid to be camping in a tent! I got me a nice RV. I kept the motor runnin’ and the heat cranked all night."

The woman turned to me as she handed me my change and asked what kind of camper I had.

"I’m in a tent," I said, and walked out before I gave in to my more base desires and smacked RV man upside the head.

I saw the guy later when I searched for a site in the one campground that was open for the season. It was only 11 sites, but it was almost full with nine gi-normous RVs, the ones that look like band tour buses. Everyone had their lawnchairs out under awnings with their grills firing, drinking beer and yapping to each other.

I tried not to let my visit be spoiled by the irony of these people keeping the motors running and their heat cranked all night under a peak whose glacier had retreated into a trickle due, at least in part, to global warming, but I couldn’t help think, over and over:

If all you’re going to do is sit on your ass drinking beer and grilling hot dogs, why do you have to drive your gas-guzzling RV out to a national park and "keep the motor runnin’" to do it? Why?


They weren’t even looking in the direction of Wheeler Peak. They’d set up their chairs and awnings and grills and coolers facing east, looking out onto the empty plains.

I found a site on the fringe of the campground and set up my tent, then went back to the visitor center to fill my water bottles because there was no water at the campground. The ranger I’d been talking to earlier saw me and came over to tell me a second campground, Baker Creek, had just opened up for the season, literally minutes earlier.

"Go. Move your tent. The sites are too small for RVs," she told me with the knowing smile of another person "stupid" enough to camp with a tent.

Thanks, Jenny... Baker Creek was empty aside from two other campers – we waved to each other as we set up or drove around to find a spot, but I noticed in the morning as I was leaving that we had put as much distance between ourselves as possible. I chose a spot right beside the creek and had a wonderful, quiet night with no electricity or heat, not even a campfire. It only dipped down to the lower 40s, I’m guessing, and I was quite cozy in my tomb tent (I call it that because it is about the size of a coffin... I can’t even sit up straight in it, which can be annoying, but it heats up nicely, a plus given I tend to hike in colder climes).

Here's a shot of my tomb tent at the camp site.

You’ve got to be a total wimp to need to camp in an RV with the motor runnin’ and the heat cranked.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Angel’s Landing II: This Time It’s Personal

In addition to visiting Best Friends, Kolob and Bryce Canyons on my whirlwind "Penultimate Southwest Hiking Weekend," I returned to Zion National Park, the scene of the December Disappoinment.

Some of you may recall that I camped Christmas Eve at Zion and spent that weekend hiking. The lower elevation hikes were great, as I like hiking in cold weather, but I was denied the hike I most wanted to accomplish: Angel’s Landing.

In all the literature, they bill the hike as "strenuous" and "extremely dangerous" and stress over and over it’s not a place for children or anyone with even a touch of acrophobia. Well, back in December, I set out on the trail only to get about 80% of the way, just to the "extremely dangerous" part, and have to turn back because the trail was a sheet of ice with neither foot- nor handholds.

To give you an idea of the hike, it’s 2.2 miles each way; not long by any means, but it’s the topography that’s a bitch. You start on a gradual ascent with switchbacks, go through a slot canyon and then "Walter’s Wiggles," a series of extremely steep, short switchbacks that takes you to Scout’s Landing, a fairly level plateau about a thousand feet up (that was as far as I got last time).

From there, the final push to Angel’s Landing is along a ridge that is variously described as "razor-like" or "knife-edge". You get the idea. The ridge is saddle shaped – you scramble up a steep incline on all fours, then down a steep decline, then up again to the summit. What makes it famously acrophobia-inducing is that the trail itself is two to four feet wide, all on uneven rock, and on either side of you is a sheer cliff, dropping down more than a thousand feet.

Personally, I have no fear of heights. In fact, I probably have an unhealthy case of acrophilia (I missed my calling as a trapeze artist). But a lot of people (it was pretty crowded, alas) got to Scout’s Landing and turned back or, unfortunately, kept going. There was one woman who started crying and shaking and sat down on the trail, unable to go forward or backward and causing a traffic jam because there was no room to pass (people eventually backed up so her husband could guide her back. I say "guide" because she refused to open her eyes, which to me is just ridiculous since she’s made it that much more dangerous for her and everyone else).

At another point, a young Australian woman coming down and I, going up, had to figure who went first through one of the extremely narrow sections. I told her to go ahead and she said "No, no. No, really... I can’t. I didn’t think I was afraid of heights until now." She just couldn’t get up the moxie to step out over a crumbly part of cliff.

Truth be told, I didn’t think it was that scary a hike. The view was beautiful and I have a tendency to fall and hurt myself only when walking on level ground. For me, the hard part was the physical beating my legs took, especially my bad ankle which doesn’t really like to be turned and twisted with weight on it, something that happened over and over as I climbed the rocks.

Unfortunately, an REI biddie* saw me pausing to give my ankle a break and decided that not only was I afraid of heights, but that I needed a "buddy" to talk me through.

(*REI biddie: a superfit retiree decked out head to toe in high-end gear such as REI or North Face or Columbia... I have gear from REI and North Face, sure, but I don’t go out in a matchy-matchy, perfectly accessorized and pressed outfit. I’ve found, generally speaking, that people who do show up on the trail looking like that have an irritating, condescending attitude towards the rest of us, especially those of us whose degree of fitness is hidden in an earth goddess body. I’m sure not all of them are like that... I just haven’t met the ones who aren’t, that’s all.)

"You can do it! You just have to build up your confidence!" She started squawking at me. "Now, don’t look down, just put your hand here and here and follow me..."

I know she meant well, in her patronizing way, but when I said "hey, I’m not afraid of heights, I just have to rest my bad ankle," she took this as "denial" and worked that much hard to be my personal motivational speaker.

Have I mentioned how much I hate motivational speakers?

I needed to get away from her, but it’s not exactly like I had an escape route. So I pretended to slip, one leg flying out over the empty air of the cliff as I gasped in faux terror.

"Ha, ha! April Fool’s!" I said to her with the maniacal grin I reserve for people I would like to hit in the head with a hammer.

I know, I'm a jackass.

The German guy behind me thought that was pretty funny (yes, it was April 1 that I did this). The REI biddie did not. She scowled at me and found a way to get some ways ahead of me very quickly.

The view at the top was indeed incredible, and worth the pain of it all – on the way down, my bad knee, miffeed at all the attention my bad ankle was getting, essentially said "look, I’ll go along for the ride, but don’t expect me to do anything like bear your weight." By the time I descended Walter’s Wiggles, the muscles on my good leg that were working that much harder because of my bum leg were just really pissed off about it all, so it took me twice as long to descend as it did to get up there.

Still worth it, though, especially because it erased my vexation over having to turn back in December.

Here are some shots of the hike, though it’s difficult to convey both the difficulty and the beauty of it.

At the trailhead: Angel's Landing looms in the center background. The sign reads "Warning! Falls from cliffs on this trail have resulted in death!" Yay, peril!

From Scout's Landing: the "extremely dangerous" final approach to Angel's Landing. When I was here in December, it was covered in ice. On April 1, it was covered in tourists, some of them up for the challenge but others, ah, not so much.

(Above) The view looking down from midway along the trail when I had to stop to let four shaking, hyperventilating teenage boys pass me on their way down. Honestly, it wasn't that bad. It's not like the trail was crawling with cows or anything (while I am immune to acrophobia, I do have a touch of bovinephobia).

(Below) The view down Zion Canyon from the summit. Gorgeous and perilous, everything I could ask for. If you visit this area of the country, you must see Zion. I really think it's the most breath-taking American park I've seen. But go between November and March. By April 1, it was teeming with crowds.

Adopt A Black Dog Today

On my penultimate "free" weekend in Vegas (I have to spend the weekend before I leave packing and doing a Chef’s Tasting), I tried to mark off as many items on my to-do list as possible, including a visit to Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah, near the Arizona border.

I first heard about Best Friends in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. They were the first animal rescue group in New Orleans, and were out in boats rescuing every pet they could find, including pit bulls (whom police were reportedly shooting on sight), days before the Humane Society and other groups even ventured into the city.

They are the nation’s largest no-kill animal shelter, and specialize in giving a home to animals with issues, both physical and psychological. I’ve been supporting them since Katrina, and wanted to see how my money was being put to use.

I’m pleased to say that, with the exception of an awful lot of very tidy and attractive landscaping, I feel they’re spending my money well. They own or lease 33,000 acres in the Vermillion Cliffs wilderness and the different compounds are spread throughout the area, so to take a tour you have to pile into a van with your tour guide.

Our tour guide happened to have one of her dogs with her (she has a total of nine, all Best Friends adoptees). Faith was a coy-dog, half dog, half coyote, and had separation anxiety. One thing she did not have, however, was a lack of chutzpah, and soon after boarding the van with us, she pushed two humans aside to make room on a seat for herself and took a lap nap (see photo).

Before Best Friends bought the land, Angel Canyon, it was used to film a ton of Westerns, including "The Lone Ranger." So we drove past Tonto’s Cave and many a "covered wagon ambush" site, which was kind of cool.

We passed one of the horse paddocks, and saw a horse that just turned 46, unheard of for equines, who usually make it to their mid-30s with good care and some luck. We also saw rescued burros and the bird house, where many of the birds survived their owners and couldn’t adjust to new ones. There was an exotic compound, too, full of flightless pigeons and peacocks with mangled tails.

We toured the special needs cattery, where I found myself in a pleasant, airy room surrounded by a couple dozen crippled, blind, incontinent and/or brain-damaged cats. They all seemed very happy and relaxed and oblivious to their injuries. One, with a yellow cast on his badly malformed leg, dragged it around as he sought out sunny spots (see photo). A black cat named Elvis, who’d been hit by a car and left to die, strutted around on his badly healed back legs which were both lightning bolt-shaped. Two cats born from the same litter, both born without eyes, sat in little kitty cubbyholes beside the door like sentinels, not moving their sightless faces but working their ears like radar dishes, picking up every sound and vibration.

My favorite was a chubby "neurologically-impaired" cat who kept trying to jump to the second level of a kitty condo and misjudging the distance. He appeared no worse for the wear, and would wobble-walk around for a minute or two before trying again.

Something interesting I learned: if a cat loses or breaks his tail in an accident, he almost always becomes incontinent because of how the nerves are connected. Tail-less Manx cats, however, do not have this problem since they are, literally, wired differently.

The only creepy thing was when our tour guide pointed out a very, very thin cat who was chowing down on her food. The cat had just been diagnosed with incurable cancer, and our tour guide said "We’re a no-kill shelter, but that means we don’t kill healthy animals. We don’t let the sick animals suffer. She’s doing fine now, but when the time comes, she will cross."

I know she meant "she will cross the Rainbow Bridge" but it was still kind of an ominous, creepy way to put it.

We drove next to Dogtown, what our guide called the "inner city" of the dog area. We did, as she put it, a "drive by" since Dogtown is where they keep the problem dogs, which you can tell by their red collars. The dogs, all big ones, looked calm and happy as they sat in the shade or loped up and down along the fence.

Our next stop was Dogtown Heights, the "suburbs" according to our guide. Here we met and mingled with dogs wearing green (friendly) and purple (generally friendly but not for a household with kids) collars who were available for adoption. There were two adorable pit bulls, a tan one named Whiskey and a black one named Churchill, that were so sweet and friendly I wanted to take them home (of course, I wanted to take them all home), but I know Wiley would not find them nearly as adorable.

At about this point, one of the people on our tour asked why there were so many black dogs there. I hadn’t noticed until then, but I’d say at least half of the dogs at Best Friends were black. Our guide said a lot of people are afraid of black dogs (well, there was that creepy scene in "The Omen") or feel they "can’t read their eyes," though that’s nonsense, and that, across the nation, black dogs have the lowest adoption rate.

So the next time you’re ready to adopt a dog from your local shelter, think about taking a black one.

As we met the people who worked there, all of whom had adopted several animals (the woman in the dog compound had 21 cats, which, I’m sorry, is just hoarding) and most of whom were vegan or vegetarian, I found I was thinking up a business plan. Buy some land nearby, set up a yurt, adopt a mess of black dogs and open a vegan bakery that also did catering. There are 400-plus employees at Best Friends; if just a quarter of them became regular customers, I’m guessing I’d be in the black (financially, and dog-wise, too, I guess). Nevermind that the sanctuary itself is on the only road into the Grand Canyon’s North Rim and I could capture a healthy flow of tourists for a few months out of the year.

I could totally see myself doing that. But not right now. I still have a lot of the world to see, including the Lofoten Islands, Mongolia and, inshallah, Afghanistan and Iran. But one day, I think that may well be where I end up.

It doesn’t get that hot in summer. I already checked.

Going Nuts

I keep meaning to mention some of the things I had to do when I was at the fancy-pantsiest of the fancy-pantsed restaurants here at the hotel last month...

We weighed out everything to the gram, including things like the graham cracker crust of a cheesecake, not exactly the realm of exact science. When applying egg wash to brioche, we used a laser-guided airbrush gun (no, really). But perhaps most obsessively, as Chef did not care for the commercially slivered nuts, some poor soul had to julienne the almonds and pistachios by hand.

That would be me.

By the pound.

Now, you may think to yourself "hmm, a pistachio really is too small to be julienned by hand," and you would be correct, but I had to do it anyway.

The trick is to have a really, really sharp knife and the ability to take yourself mentally to a happy place so you’re not really aware that you’re in hour three of turning nuts into neat and orderly pieces the width of a matchstick.

So the next time you eat at some fancy-pantsed fine dining establishment, before you gobble down your dish, take a moment to look at the humble nuts used as garnish, and appreciate the teeny tiny knife cuts better suited for a dollhouse. Then raise your glass to the poor student probably locked up in the kitchen who provided that extra added touch to your meal.