Monthly Archives: July 2009

Best If Read Before 8/10/09

Does this can look a little puffy?

Does this can look a little puffy?

The other day an Army “lifer” retired after forty years in the military.  He celebrated by eating a tin of C-ration pound cake that he had gotten soon after his enlistment, back in 1969.  I expected to read about his death by gastric explosion the next day, but he seems to have survived a can of forty-year-old pastry.  Food additives were not a concern back then, so it probably had more preservatives in it than King Tut.

The government must be more stringently enforcing regulations about product content and freshness now — at least, that’s what you’d think.  After all, virtually everything you might be inclined to eat or drink seems to have an expiration date stamped on it, right?  I figured some watchdog agency of the federal government has determined how long it takes for tomato paste or peanut butter — even water! — to go bad in its container.  Turns out I was wrong.  Those date stamps are largely voluntary.

Yes, the Food and Drug Administration does require expiration dates on infant formula and baby food.  And yes, the Department of Agriculture has some strong opinions about when meat and poultry are, shall we say, un-fresh.  Most states have laws concerning the stuff you buy, but those laws vary from state to state, and are usually about dairy products.  Beyond that, it’s pretty much up to the discretion of the manufacturer and/or retailer.  What we consumers call expiration dates mean something else to them.

If you see a date stamp preceded by “sell by”, that tells the store how long to keep it on the shelf, and it’s a pretty good indicator that you shouldn’t buy the product after that date.  It won’t necessarily make you sick, but it isn’t going to last a lot longer than the date shown.

“Best if used by” simply means, well, what it says.  The flavor or quality of that item is best by that date, but it’s still edible (or drinkable) after that.  In other words, the “best by” date has more to do with quality than safety.  That’s also basically true of the “use by” designation, which is the last date the manufacturer vouches for the product’s quality; they don’t want you eating their potato chips if they’ve gone stale.  That’s because a bad experience might make you think twice about buying their brand of chips next time.  It has the additional benefit, from the manufacturer’s point of view, of getting you to throw out food items that are still OK — and buy more of their product.

It should be noted that unmarried men tend to ignore all expiration dates.  In a bachelor’s cupboard you’ll find stuff (like cheese) that is even older than his toothbrush.

Although a lot of these expiration dates don’t have the force of law behind them, I find them generally helpful.  In fact, it might not be a bad idea to expand the use of expiration dates to other consumer products.  Suppose they put them on clothing, for instance.  Wouldn’t you like to know that those plaid pants you’re wearing have long since passed their “best by” date?  Shouldn’t that woman at the end of the bar be notified that her hairdo expired in 1982?  And I intentionally left out the question “How do you know when sour cream goes bad?” because that joke’s expiration date was years ago.

Tom’s Top 25

ASU vs Notre Dame 1998It’s traditional at this time of year for sports publications, wire services, newspapers, and miscellaneous college football experts to list their preseason top 20 or 25 teams.  I am none of the above, but since 1993 I have felt compelled to publish my own Top 25.  In the past it has been sent on paper, which gave those who received it a convenient way to dispose of their chewing gum.  This is the first time my list has been announced electronically; I can only imagine the excitement you must be feeling at this moment, to be part of history in the making.  Hey!  Wake up!

Before I get to the list, though, let me just make a few comments about some of the teams that are on it (for the first five, see my post of 7/17/09).

After many years of mediocrity, MISSISSIPPI reeled off nine wins last season, including a Cotton Bowl triumph over Texas Tech.  Many experts think the Rebels will be even better in 2009… GEORGIA TECH’s offensive scheme under second-year coach Paul Johnson gives opponents fits… An undefeated season in 2008 propelled UTAH to a #2 ranking in the final AP poll.  Whether the Utes can repeat that level of achievement again seems unlikely, but they will be very, very good… CALIFORNIA has quality, veteran players at most positions; the glaring exception is at quarterback.  If the Bears can find someone decent to plug in at that spot, they just might wind up Pac-10 champions… A strong defense should carry PITTSBURGH through another respectable season… The IOWA Hawkeyes had four losses last season, by a combined total of twelve points.  A creampuff schedule in 2009 should put a couple more games in the win column.  And now, here’s how I rank my top twenty-five picks:

  1. Florida
  2. Texas
  3. Virginia Tech
  4. Oklahoma
  5. USC
  6. Penn State
  7. Mississippi
  8. Georgia Tech
  9. Alabama
  10. Utah
  11. Boise State
  12. California
  13. Ohio State
  14. Pittsburgh
  15. Georgia
  16. Texas Tech
  17. Iowa
  18. LSU
  19. Texas Christian
  20. Oregon
  21. North Carolina
  22. Brigham Young
  23. Oklahoma State
  24. West Virginia
  25. Oregon State

Comida Mexicana en Todo el Mundo

My wristwatch financed dinner for four in Mazatlan, Mexico

My wristwatch financed dinner for four in Mazatlan, Mexico

Loosely translated, the headline means “Mexican food around the world”, and that’s my eating goal.  I don’t claim to have completed that quest yet, but I’m working on it.  Yes, I know it’s foolish to think I can find good frijoles in France or carnitas in Canada, but I’m not the kind of traveler who’s content to return home with just a mug and a T-shirt as souvenirs of my trip — I seek acid reflux.

You see, I happen to love Mexican food.  I crave that string of molten cheese that follows my fork all the way from the plate to my chin.  I savor the salsa-laden chips that, when bitten, wait a moment or two before they bite back.  When Mexican rice is perfectly prepared, it rivals risotto.  Oh, I love Italian food too, and French cuisine.  I’ve had tafelspitz in Austria, tzadziki in Greece, and other regional specialties that were delicious — but no matter where I am on the planet, eventually I find myself needing a Mexican food “fix”.

That’s not a problem in Mexico, of course, and San Antonio, Texas, is loaded with good Mexican restaurants.  It’s even possible to find a reasonable facsimile of an enchilada in New York City.  There are, however, parts of the world that are seriously tortilla-deprived.  I’m not sure what it’s like in Paris today, but a little over a decade ago, there was only one Mexican restaurant in the food capital of the world.  It was in the Sorbonne; the owner/waiter (he may have been the cook as well) was from India.  The menu was mostly in French — it felt odd ordering Enchiladas de Frommage.  They did have Bohemia, though, one of the best Mexican beers.

A little Mexican diner in Cairns, Australia, had no beer for sale because they didn’t have a license to sell it.  The guy working the counter (who was Canadian, by the way) solved the problem by — wink, wink — giving me something called Hahn Ice Draft.  Which tasted very similar to beer.  Although the menu was limited, the tacos were OK, and when you’re thousands of miles from Mexico, “OK” is pretty good.

We ate in a restaurant on Leicester Square in London that served up decent Mexican food, and we had a great combo platter in the Virgin Islands many years ago.  Near the Pantheon in Rome we discovered a place called Oliphant, which, in 2001, claimed to be the only authentic Tex-Mex restaurant in Rome.  The use of the world “authentic” bordered on fraud, but we found their fare tolerable as long as we didn’t think of it as Mexican food.  It certainly tasted better than a really bad burrito I once had in British Columbia.

The famed (and doomed) mountain climber George Mallory supposedly was asked, “Why do you want to climb Mount Everest?”  “Because it’s there,” he replied.  If you ask me why we go searching for Mexican food in distant lands, I guess I could give you a jaunty smile and say, “Because it isn’t there.”  Except that every once in a while it is there, which makes it all the more satisfying.  I mean, that guacamole we had in Greece was out of this mundo!

Title Contenders

USC-UCLA game 1989There are so many sources of enjoyment in life:  Hearing a choir perform Mozart’s Ave verum corpus in a candlelit concert at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris is one of them.  Another is watching two good football teams knock the stuffing out of each other.

I like all levels of football, but I tend to focus on college football, mainly because I know I couldn’t get away with spending both days of every weekend in front of the TV from Labor Day to early February.  Since Major League Baseball recently had its All-Star game, sports fans know that football season is just around the corner.  With that in mind, here are my choices of the elite teams in college football for the 2009 season — one will probably be the eventual national champion.  In a future post I’ll supply a list of my preseason Top 25 so that by mid-October you’ll be able to mock my poor judgment.  For now, though, here are the teams I think are likeliest to be #1, listed in no particular order…

TEXAS     Only a last-second TD by Texas Tech kept the Longhorns from an undefeated season in 2008.  QB Colt McCoy, who was second in last year’s Heisman voting, returns.  The pass defense should be stronger than the unit of a year ago.  Texas is a lock for at least 10 wins — how many can they get beyond that?

USC     The Trojans’ string of seven consecutive seasons with at least 11 wins could be in jeopardy.  Last year’s defense was among the best in college football history; only three starters from that unit return.  Quarterback is also a concern with the departure of Mark Sanchez.  Coach Pete Carroll always seems to find a way to fill holes, though, so the 2009 edition may once again be among the nation’s finest college football teams.

FLORIDA     Last season’s national champion averaged over 43 points per game; opponents averaged only 12.9 points against the Gators.  Most of the lettermen return, including QB Tim Tebow — and all 11 defensive starters.  The favorable schedule includes Charleston Southern, Florida International, Troy, and Tennessee.

OKLAHOMA     The 2008 offense was statistically the best ever.  The Sooners scored 99 touchdowns and were the first team in history to have two 1,000-yard rushers and a 4,000-yard passer.  Running backs Chris Brown and DeMarco Murray join quarterback Sam Bradford for an encore — but most of last year’s offensive line doesn’t.  If that group can be rebuilt, Oklahoma could challenge again.

VIRGINIA TECH      The Hokies don’t get as much national acclaim as the schools listed above, but here’s something worth considering:  over the last five years, which three teams won at least ten games each season?  Right, Virginia Tech is one of them (USC and Texas are the others).  They should get to that plateau again; how they fare against Alabama in early September will give us a clue if they’re truly championship-caliber.

To be polite, I suppose we should include a team from the Big 10.  Ohio State and Penn State are probably the best from that conference, but both have lost a lot of talent.  The Buckeyes no longer have stars like Beanie Wells and James Laurinaitis; thirteen 2008 starters are gone from the Nittany Lions.  I expect both squads to be good, but not among the very best.  Meanwhile, fans of the Big East conference won’t have much reason to get excited until basketball season.

To be continued…

Tips for Better Photographs

This is a bad photograph.

This is a bad photograph.

“A picture is worth a thousand words”  is how we say it now, but Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations records that the original Chinese proverb was “One picture is worth more than ten thousand words.”  The discrepancy may be due to any of several factors: the exchange rate (Chinese words vs. English words), the current practice of using cheap words, or the prevalence of lousy pictures. 

As you may recall from last year’s crop of Christmas cards, there are lots of bad photos making the rounds, and I’ll admit to having taken some of them.  Sally and I have also taken some shots that have won ribbons in photo contests, so I’m going to use those dubious credentials as justification for offering advice.  We can’t all be Annie Leibovitz or Ansel Adams, but if you follow these tips, you won’t have guests feigning a medical emergency when you bring out your photo album.

1. Take your camera with you     I wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard someone say, “Darn it, I meant to bring my camera.”  Whatever the occasion — a vacation in Europe, your mother’s wedding, the neighborhood pillow fight — if there’s any chance you’ll want pictures, have the camera in your pocket or purse.  And don’t give me that stuff about, “I’d rather just remember it than having to bother with a camera.”  Trust me — your memory will fade sooner than the pictures will.

2. Familiarize yourself with your camera’s buttons and gadgets     By now you may have identified the power switch and the shutter, but modern digital cameras are capable of all sorts of cool things, like focusing.  It’s worth getting to know what it can do, even though that means trying to read the manual.  By the way, if you have trouble understanding it, so does everyone else.  That’s because the booklet that came with your camera was originally written in Turkish, by a tax accountant.  The translation is a little loose sometimes:  “If you wish the making of not a flash, rotate dial for the click-click two times (Fig. H, Paragraph II, subsection r).”  Stay with it; eventually you’ll figure it out.

3. Don’t aim the camera directly into the sun     Also, don’t stare directly into the sun — but that’s a health issue, not a good-picture issue.  Whenever possible, though, line up your outdoor shots so the sun is behind you or to one side.  This doesn’t apply if you’re trying to get a picture of a sunset.

4. Closer is generally better     Move in so that your subject(s) fills the frame.  I mean, if you’re taking a picture of your two best friends from high school, you don’t really care what shoes they’re wearing, do you?  Then why are you squinting at your viewfinder in the lobby while they’re posing in the banquet room?  Don’t be shy about invading your subject’s space, unless his bodyguards threaten to break your camera with the bridge of your nose.  While you’re at it, in lining up the shot, make sure you don’t have the horizon at a 30° angle.  If you took the photo while on dry land, it shouldn’t look like you took it on a boat during a storm.

5. Edit     No one wants to see your overexposed, out-of-focus shots just because the drugstore printed them.  It’s better to share the three or four that turned out well than all sixty mediocre ones.  If you only show people your best shots, they’ll think you’re a good photographer.  And then they’ll ask you to make copies for them, since they “forgot” to bring their own camera.

Please Don’t Call Me That

Catherine the Great, 1775

Catherine the Great, 1775

Down through the centuries, there have been a handful of rulers whose accomplishments earned them the sobriquet “Great”.  There was Alexander the Great, of course, who was King of Macedonia until he became Alexander the Late in 323 BCE.  Russia had a couple of Greats:  Czar Peter I (died 1725) and Empress Catherine II (d. 1796).  Frederick II of Prussia (d. 1786) is remembered by history as Frederick the Great, causing Frederick III to wonder, “What am I, chopped liver?”

There have been many other monarchs who didn’t get the coveted “Great” attached to their names, and we’re not just talking about having to settle for being called Albert the Average.  It was common practice, particularly in the Middle Ages, to characterize a monarch by his most notable attribute.  That resulted in some unflattering titles.  There was Henry II the Quarrelsome (Duke of Bavaria, d. 995) and Peter I the Cruel (King of Castile, d. 1369).  Philip the Bold (Duke of Burgundy, d. 1404) isn’t so bad, but consider some of the many guys named Charles who have been in charge.  Bear in mind that these are not fictitious; you can look up any of the following in Encyclopedia Britannica.

Charles II the Bald was a king of France (d. 877), and is not to be confused with Charles II the Bad, who was King of Navarre until 1387.  There was Charles III the Fat, a Frankish king who died in 888, and Charles III the Simple, another French king who died in 929.  King Charles VI of France (d. 1422) was apparently a complicated man.  He is sometimes referred to as Charles the Well-Beloved, but is also known as Charles the Mad.  He got the “Mad” designation because he suffered bouts of mental illness which resulted in bizarre behavior; during one such spell he imagined that he was made of glass and would break if he moved.

My favorite not-so-noble name, though, is Ethelred II the Unready.  He was king of the English from 978 to 1016, so his subjects had a long time to evaluate his unreadiness.  Ethelred ascended the throne when his half brother, King Edward the Martyr, was assassinated.  (There was a different Edward the Martyr, incidentally, who had been snuffed a century earlier.)

Anyway, Ethelred the Unready was around ten years old when he became king, and who is ready to lead troops and conduct ribbon-cutting ceremonies at that age?  He’d barely reached puberty when the Danes overran England, so how could he be ready for an invasion of his country when he was having to deal with his first outbreak of acne?

Ethelred the Unready eventually had a son who became king; he was known as Edward the Confessor.  The Confessor part was supposedly due to his piety, but he also had some confessin’ — or at least explainin’ — to do because his ineffectual governance led to the Norman invasion, which resulted in William the Conqueror getting his impressive name.

This all got me wondering what would happen if that custom had persisted, and wasn’t applied only to monarchs but to commoners as well.  Think about it:  If, in addition to your given name, the people who know you added one adjective that they felt summarized your dominant trait — what would you be called?  Marty the Magnificent?  Christine the Chatterbox?  Edwin the Drowsy?  Sharon the Atrocious Speller?  My wife says I’d probably be known as Tom the Punctual.  I suspect I’ve been called worse.

Car Hike

elk in YellowstoneAdmiring broad vistas of nature while hiking along a trail is an exhilarating experience.  The only drawback is that it isn’t very time-efficient.  Even an experienced hiker in good physical condition can only cover a few miles in a day, which limits the amount of natural beauty one can see.  That’s why I invented the car hike.  It’s in the road-trip family, but a car hike takes you off the main highways and onto the scenic byways.  It allows you the opportunity to travel much greater distances than a traditional foot-hiker can attain, thereby revealing far more scenic beauty.  To get the additional thrill of “roughing it” that hikers enjoy, I recommend turning off the car’s air conditioning and rolling down the windows.

Yellowstone National Park is an ideal spot for car hiking because of its vast expanses (3,468 square miles).  A foot hiker can only take in a tiny portion of it, but a car hiker with a map and a careful plan can enjoy a generous sample of its geysers, canyons, waterfalls, rivers, lakes, and wildlife in a relatively few days.  To illustrate how a car hike in Yellowstone works, here is my report of one.  It’s just the afternoon hours, mind you — of September 9, 2008:

Sally took the wheel after lunch and we found a road off the main highway — it’s called Firehole Lake Drive.  Along the way we saw some cars parked and decided to investigate.  It was the site of a geyser called White Dome.  Several people had been waiting there quite a while, but within minutes of our arrival it erupted — a pretty impressive show, too.  It wasn’t as high as Old Faithful, but the eruption seemed to last longer, and the cone was taller.

The plan was to work our way back toward our hotel in West Yellowstone, allowing time for stops along the way.  One sight that caught our eye and made us pull off the road was a fly fisherman sharing the Madison River with an elk.  They glanced at each other occasionally, but neither seemed to feel threatened by the other…

While looking for the perfect spot to have the “refreshments” I had in the trunk of our rental car, we came across a frustrated romance.  A male elk with extravagant antlers was in the company of seven females.  His bellows — and aggressive passes — made it clear that he was strongly interested in mating.  The females all claimed to have headaches, though, and managed to thwart his advances.

Eventually we found a quiet spot near the Seven-Mile Bridge (Madison River).  We got out of the car and walked a short distance to the bank of the river, where we enjoyed our drinks along with some mixed nuts.  We weren’t alone for long — on the opposite bank several female elk and a couple of juveniles came down to the river’s edge for their evening drink…