Wednesday, August 31, 2011

From the Archives - Passing of the Windsor


Ages ago, while attending college in Santa Barbara, I bought a really small boom box at a drug store for some impossibly small about of money, $12 or something. On a lark, I took to showing it off to friends and family like it was some super-deluxe high end technological marvel (much the way some folks show off their iPads and iPhones today). I never let up: whenever somebody would come over I’d show him the Windsor as if I’d just bought it, and I sometimes talked about it during bike rides, etc. Some guys rolled their eyes; others played along. This went on for as long as I had the thing.

Well, after some eight years of regular use, that little stereo died. I think I still have the cord somewhere. I wrote this eulogy and sent it around.

The Passing of the Windsor – April 2, 1997

I have some sad, sad news. You’d better be sitting down for this: on Friday, I buried the Windsor. It passed away quietly, in my arms, after slipping into a coma on Thursday evening before my bike trainer workout. The Windsor had been ailing for some weeks. The FM went out during, or just prior to, our last big jam session. That was several weeks after the antenna broke off (which, remarkably, seemed to have no effect on its FM reception).

The once-mighty Windsor just went downhill from there. The right channel faded badly and rapidly, until almost no sound came out of it. The left speaker became gravelly, like the voice of a woman who’s smoked a pack a day for 20 years. Then, one of the silver clips from the tape deck door got lost, which was only a minor problem since I always took the door off to play tapes anyway, but still, given the general opulence of the Windsor, that clip was probably sterling silver and its loss was, well, a loss.

On Thursday, it became painful to watch the Windsor try, doggedly but totally without success, to carry out its audio duties. It was like watching a stroke victim for whom the simplest task—say, lifting a spoonful of cream of wheat to his lips—becomes a futile and messy affair. I got no sound from the right speaker and barely any from the left. The pitch of the sound—once easily controlled with quick pokes to various points on the cassette, to accentuate either the rich, throaty bass or the light, airy treble—was now all over the spectrum, a roller coaster of sound that was enough to turn a weaker stomach than mine.

Then the Windsor did something it had never done before, in all of its eight years of faithful use: it ate my tape. It cannibalized the Fine Young Cannibals. I was able to save the tape, but the Windsor was nonetheless terribly distraught and inflicted considerable shame upon itself, like a dog who has just accidentally mistaken the new baby for a chew toy. Its time was clearly past.

So, on Friday I pulled the plug. The cord was lodged extremely far into the back of the Windsor, and even in its weakened condition the Windsor clung to life with a tenacity that touched my heart. But I knew it was for the best, and managed to wiggle the cord loose and finally pull it free. The Windsor had magnanimously made it known to me, in its little musical way, that it wished to be an organ donor, and I set the cord aside so that one day it might be the conduit of life for some waffle iron or, perhaps, another stereo.

Another stereo! Have I know shame? O, the Windsor was still warm in its grave when I went right down to The Good Guys and shopped around for a replacement. I know, it’s despicable, and I should have more respect—indeed, I should swear off music entirely after my loss—but damn it, I’m only human, and I can’t work out on the trainer without music. So I looked in vain for a long time at hideous, bloated boom boxes, the Ford Tauruses of the portable stereo industry, and I just couldn’t do it. They all had CD players and silly sound selectors which can be set to Jazz, Pop, Dance, or House. No classical. And no Windsor.

I know that I shall never replace that fine stereophonic art form. How could I? All I can do is try to pacify myself with a lesser substitute. And I know full well that technological masterpieces cannot be bought at The Good Guys, or any other humdrum electronics store—they need to be purchased at Thrifty Drug. But it would be blasphemous to go back there, as if another Windsor could ever be found.

And so, despite my misgivings, in a moment of exceptional human frailty I ended up going home with a slutty Panasonic number, sporting dual bass, line in jacks, and a three-band graphic equalizer. Hah! Three bands! Such an insult, after the infinite audio adjustment I could so effortlessly, and yet so artfully, perform on the Windsor by poking the tape. Once home, I plugged in the Panasonic and found it to be a brash, blaring, totally unsophisticated piece of hardware, competent for the job but totally lacking the joie-de-vivre of the Windsor—the romance, the passion, and yet the simple grace of its sweet whisper.

At first I could barely listen to the Panasonic pump and blat out its textbook rendering of the music. But you know, after a loss like the passing of the Windsor, something inside of you just dies. To say you lower your expectations is a gross understatement: indeed, you come to realize that you never expect to be musically fulfilled again.

Please take a moment to quietly reflect on the passing of our friend. I entreat you to remember the good times, reflect on the love of life and the noble heart of the Windsor; remember it as it was, in its long and glorious life. I hope that your grief is not too severe.

dana albert blog

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Food of Scotland - Part II


If you’ve been paying attention, you saw my last blog post, The Food of Scotland Part I. Perhaps you view this post, Part II, as being derivative, and you’ve come to resent such serialized features. Well, that’s your fault for participating in a society that has learned to nurse every bit of value it can out of every concept. It’s why we have movies like “Harry Potter – The Leaking Gallows Part II Part VI.” (I could easily look up the actual title, but that approximation got a big rise out of my daughter Alexa, so I’m inclined to reuse it. See how this cheap retread thing works?)

So here are the categories of Scottish food I didn’t get to in my last post. Because I started with the most intriguing stuff, this post is really the dregs, the offal, the deli hash—dare I say the haggis—of the topic. You might as well read it, though. Heck, you’ve made it this far.

World Cuisine

When I’m in America, I don’t subsist on American food, any more than I focus on California Cuisine when I’m in California. Likewise, we were eager to try out Scotland’s versions of other countries’ foods. On our first night in Glasgow, we decided to try Japanese and went to a place called Wudon. Their version of the California roll has little pieces of Saltines and crumbled In-N-Out Burger in it. No it doesn’t. Look:

It was great, like all great sushi. I know that’s tautological but I’m going to stick by it. I especially liked the artfully carved wasabi. It was almost too pretty to eat.

(Incidentally, the only bad sushi I’ve ever had at a restaurant was at this all-you-can-eat place where it was made well beforehand and tasted like a refrigerator. My brother and I learned that all you had to do was power through all they had, and then they were forced to start making it fresh, and then it got good.)

There’s a UK-wide chain called Pizza Express. It came recommended and we tried it. I had pizza there.

As you can see, it’s kind of weird ‘za. Not much cheese, but it had some bacon. It sported the highbrow feature of fresh arugula (or “rocket” as the British call it, as if they ever put a man on the moon), tempered by a comfortably sweet and lowbrow ranch dressing. I liked it, though it must be said I like all pizza, even bad pizza. Even frozen pizza. Some time we’re going to have Trashy Food night at home, with Totino’s frozen pizza (the greasy stuff with the fake cheese), some Shasta soda, and maybe even some Fritos.

I’m not sure if pizza counts as Italian, but here’s some French onion soup we had at an Italian place:

It was really very good, and their special touch was not encasing it in melted Swiss cheese. What, French onion soup without Swiss cheese? I guess that’s the Italian way. Following that we had this lasagne:

You might think that’s obviously Italian, but really it was more like American: Franco-American to be precise. Yes, I’m saying the sauce tasted like Chef Boyardee. (Has it ever puzzled you that an American company putting out putatively Italian prepared foods would call itself Franco-American?) Anyway, the sauce wasn’t the only American part: the portion size—enough for a starving cyclist—made me feel like I was back in the U.S. The pasta was really mushy. But the whole thing was smothered in cheese so I can’t really fault it.

Speaking of American:

Full disclosure: we didn’t have this cake in Scotland, but in London where we stayed with friends over July 4th. The man of the house was English-born but had worked in the U.S. for many years. He married an American and took her back to London with him. So, an expatriate and a re-patriate, you could say. They made sure our Independence Day was a satisfying one. I gave the husband a stern lecture about taxation without representation, to which he replied, “Tell me about it. I paid your government plenty in taxes without getting to vote.” Now, you might think I’d be stumped by this retort, but I quickly and boldly fired back, “These colors don’t run!” Amazingly, he hadn’t heard this before and simply looked confused. His wife then sang, “Proud to be an Amer-i-CUUUUN!” Score one for the bluecoats! And how was the cake? Delicious, of course.

We had some really good Indian food in Glasgow, but I somehow neglected to get any photos. Without a thousand words to spare I’ll just have to let the matter drop.

Things we didn’t eat

As with our last trip to the UK, we didn’t eat any Mexican food. There was one place in Glasgow that was faintly praised in our guidebook (something like “If you have to have Mexican in Glasgow, this is your best bet”). It looked pricey, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned about Mexican food, it’s that cheaper usually means better, and fancy is often lame. So we skipped it, having topped up our blood Mexican levels at the surprisingly decent (and unsurprisingly expensive) taqueria in the San Francisco airport.

We didn’t eat any bubble and squeak (cabbage and potatoes fried together, named after the sound made as it’s cooked) because it wasn’t featured on any menus, I’ve never had it recommended to me, and we weren’t about to try cooking it ourselves. We also didn’t eat hasty pudding unless the porridge we made from a mix qualifies. (It was quick….)

We also didn’t eat any Subway sandwiches, though we saw plenty of Subways in Scotland. I read recently that Subway is now the largest fast food chain in the world. I remember the first one I ever saw, on Broadway near Arapahoe in Boulder. At first, being a dumb kid, I thought it was an actual subway station and couldn’t figure out why there weren’t any others. When I learned it was a restaurant, I mistook it for a creditable one-off like the nearby Mustard’s Last Stand. By the time I learned Subway was a giant chain, I’d also learned that even Mustard’s was a small chain. My idealistic naiveté has continued to be pummeled ever since, with the latest and harshest insult being the closing of my favorite Berkeley joint.

The next thing we didn’t try was the amazing variety of crisps available.

In case that went too fast for you, there were pickled onion, cheese & onion, smoky bacon, prawn cocktail, tomato ketchup, roast chicken, and Space Raiders pickled onion. Doing a little research, I found that this Walkers outfit also offers crisps flavored like BBQ rib, Worcester sauce, and Chicken & Stuffin (whatever that is), and that in the past they’ve had Baked Bean, Marmite, Spicy Mango, Australian BBQ Kangaroo, Welsh Rarebit, and even Scottish Haggis. As a matter of fact, Walkers even test-marketed a Cajun-squirrel-flavored crisp.

As a patriot, I find all this a little hard to take. Surely Americans lead the world in consumption of crisps (that is, potato chips); how could we not also be the most innovative in developing new flavors? I took some solace in learning that Walkers is now owned by Frito-Lay. But still.

Speaking of strange flavors we didn’t try, when we went out for Indian we didn’t try the haggis pakora appetizer. I actually wanted to, but my wife Erin pointed out that we hadn’t yet tried regular haggis at that point (though we did get to it later), and also hadn’t yet tried the standard pakora. (There were other components to her argument as well; I believe the phrase “sick and wrong” came into play.)

One other thing we didn’t eat was blood pudding. To be precise: Erin and the kids didn’t eat blood pudding, and I didn’t have seconds of it (i.e., Erin’s uneaten portion). It came with our Full Scottish Breakfast and you can see it in my previous post. As I said there, the blood pudding was a chewy, mulchy little disk of congealed, salty pig’s blood, perhaps not as little as I’d have liked it to be, and my own portion was a bit of a struggle to get down. I hate to waste food, but then that’s arguably not food. (It’s possible that good blood pudding would be a totally different deal, but I’ll believe that when I see it.)

Kids’ Menus

We were pleased, as we’d been during our London trip a couple of years ago, to see kids’ menus done with some flair. Often, when in restaurants at home, we end up ordering our kids’ food from the regular menu because our kids don’t want chicken nuggets and I’m not about to buy them something I can make well at home, like hot dogs or grilled cheese. A good rule of thumb for kids’ offerings: when the food arrives, I should feel tempted to use my superior size and strength to seize my kid’s meal and eat it myself. Thus it was with this spaghetti Bolognese:

The kids’ choices at American restaurants often come with fries, a basic ice cream dessert, and juice or soda (which I think should be a controlled substance). In the UK there are things like side vegetables and actual appetizers (served as a separate course). Check this out:

Red bell peppers? I could see those inciting a tantrum in many an American kid. The little baked doodads had some name but I can’t remember it. Pizza holes? That’s not it. Anyway, they’re just balls of baked dough but they were a hit, and they gave the kids something to do, in the absence of crayons, while the rest of the food was being made.

Now check out this dessert:

That sundae was about the sweetest thing I’ve ever tasted. (I taste all my kids’ desserts in accordance with the family Parental Tariff policy.) The chunks of caramel were Wonka-esque miracles of sugar reduction. About the only way to make this dessert more potent would be to supply a flame and an extra spoon. Meanwhile, check out the little frothy teacup. That was merely steamed milk with some cocoa powder—fun to sip, but not very substantial. I suspect it’s designed as a gateway beverage to expensive cappuccinos for when these kids graduate to the standard menu.


Dining out in Scotland was occasionally weird, due either to the food or the service. Sometimes it was good-weird, as with the brilliant haggis (and haggis stromboli) I described in my last post. So it was too with this offering (from the kids’ menu) which was called a battered sausage:

In advising Alexa, the waitress had described the battered sausage as “quite lovely,” and after tasting it I have to say, it really was delicious. It’s just one of the oddest foods I’ve ever seen.

Another oddity was the tea Erin had at the Japanese place. The tea itself was pretty standard green tea; what made it weird was the giant tea bag, easily the largest I’ve ever seen. In this photo it’s hard to appreciate the sheer size of the thing unless you know that the glass behind it is a full-size mug. This tea bag was the size of a chile relleno. Amazing.

In the overall experience category, the greatest weirdness was this Thai place we went to for lunch. It was really upscale, but the lunch special was reasonable—at least, no more unreasonable than any of the other places we went. (Frankly, the pound was murdering our weak dollar.) Though we went right at lunchtime, we were the only people in the place. It was opulently decorated, with large elephant statues made of marble; cloth tablecloths; cloth napkins; a coat check; and like five people waiting on us. It was absolutely dead quiet in there. Shifting your napkin on your lap was an audible event (bringing to mind those martial arts movies where every time a fighter swings his arm there’s this tremendous ripping noise). The staff never seemed to leave the dining room: when not serving, they would stand sentinel. We were afraid to talk.

Before the food came out, they brought these elaborate heated platforms to put the serving plates on:

When the entrees arrived, the servers set them down extremely quietly, as if there was a baby sleeping nearby. We were all pretty nervous by this point. They plated the rice from a serving bowl but then whisked it away instead of leaving it on the table, as though the sight of leftover rice was somehow disgraceful. I think the serving spoons were sterling silver. Here is the food. The main point of this photo is how worried Lindsay looks in the background (even though she’s gazing upon a plate of Pad Thai, everybody’s favorite).

The food itself was quite good. Erin didn’t trust the chicken (in the foreground of the photo) because it seemed too tender. I think she was just spooked in general. (I do wonder, though, if she wasn’t still reacting to a tequila ad from the ‘90s that showed a table of picked-over dishes at a Chinese restaurant with the broken pieces of a fortune cookie and a fortune slip reading, “That wasn’t chicken.” A five-foot-tall print of this ad was affixed to the bus shelter right outside an already doomed Chinese restaurant in our old San Francisco neighborhood.)

As the staff worked hard to make our Thai lunch enjoyable, the pressure really started to get to us. Perhaps this is how people feel who are unknowingly taking part in psychological experiments. Could there be one-way glass somewhere? Hidden cameras? It dawned on me that the place didn’t have any windows.

One thing we missed about American restaurants is how the check is always brought early, usually with the comment, “I’ll take that whenever you’re ready.” I’ve heard that visiting Europeans think this is terribly rude, as though they’re being rushed out of the restaurant. I think they’re mistaken, and that American waiters are entirely sincere—they’re simply giving us the freedom to be on our way as soon as we’re damn good and ready. Which we really were at this Thai place. Erin isn’t shy about asking for the check, but to our surprise the waitress—who had scarcely said a word up to this point—politely refused: “I can’t bring it yet because you’re not done eating.” She sounded vaguely pained, as there were a subtext: “They’ll fire me if I do!” If there were a Thai version of the French “C’est impossible” I’m sure she’d have used it.


Gosh, I hate to finish on a somber note. I’m sure there are people—brazen crime bosses, perhaps—who could have really enjoyed that Thai place. Overall, we found Scotland a great place to eat, from the haggis to the ale, the superior British bacon to the gorgeous mussels and local cheeses, the international fare, sculpted wasabi, and the improbably delicious battered sausage. I recommend you get over there and try it sometime. Bring the kids.

dana albert blog

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Food of Scotland - Part I


My family vacationed in the U.K. last month, and I’m just getting around to processing the experience—digesting it, if you will. (I thought of blogging from there, but figured that any mention of being away from my home would lead to it getting burglarized, despite the vicious attack dog and gun-nut house sitter who, as far as you know, always watch over the place during our vacations.) Since I already wrote about the food of London, this post focuses on the food of Scotland, where we spent close to two weeks.

I will point out up front that I’m not going to pretend I could give an overall account of how good Scottish food is, or try to compare it to what we eat in the Bay Area. In Scotland I was a largely clueless tourist with no idea where to go, and judging Scottish food by the random restaurants I blindly stumbled into would be no fairer than judging San Francisco food by the highly forgettable restaurants you’ll find along Fisherman’s Wharf.

Also, this post doesn’t cover certain British fare that you might expect it to, as I decided not to rehash certain food experiences already described in my previous post. Such omissions include bangers & mash, high tea, bacon (British vs. American), Indian Thali platters, and pork belly.

Local specialties

Some journalist friends of mine gave me some blogging advice. They advised me to put the very best stuff at the beginning of my story, and then to delete everything below it, if not the entire story. In fact, the holy grail of journalism is to somehow get into the reader’s brain and rip out all memory of anything else he may already have read. These techniques are called “the lead,” the “nut graph,” and “concise writing,” respectively. With the journalists in mind I’ll cut right to the chase and start with the most important, fascinating, and famous Scottish specialty:


What is haggis? My dictionary defines it as “A Scottish dish consisting of a mixture of the minced heart, lungs, and liver of a sheep or calf mixed with suet, onions, oatmeal, and seasonings and boiled in the stomach of the slaughtered animal.” Its popularity goes beyond its deliciousness; it’s a part of the heritage of Scotland. Robert Burns, the national poet of Scotland (a country where the national poet is like a rock star) has written a poem in its honor, “Address to a Haggis,” which includes these lines (given first in the original, then in a modern translation):

His knife see rustic Labour dicht,

An cut you up wi ready slicht,

Trenching your gushing entrails bricht,

Like onie ditch;

And then, Oh what a glorious sicht,

Warm-reekin, rich!

His knife see rustic Labour sharpen,
And cut you up with practiced skill,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like any ditch;
And then, Oh what a glorious sight,
Warm-steaming, rich!

Among English majors, the literary term for a poet like Burns is “badass.”

Here is my plate of “haggis, neeps, and tatties” (that is, haggis with mashed turnips and mashed potatoes):

Of course you want to know, “How was it?” Well, it was even tastier than it sounds. I’m no haggis expert—I can’t wax eloquent about the piquancy and freshness of the suet used, or the pleasingly coarse grain of the oatmeal, or how the heart, lungs, and liver compare to that of other haggises and other formulations of organs and offal, such as soul food or the Manager’s Special at Furr’s Cafeteria. All I can say is that it was delicious, in a warm-steaming, rich, gushing-entrail kind of way.

Lest you doubt my sincerity, or think that I just have some sort of culinary fetish for slaughterhouse loss-leaders, let me tell you what my family thought of the haggis. My daughter Alexa, because she was closest, was the first to satisfy her curiosity. Her yummy-noises instantly alerted her sister Lindsay, who wasted no time getting a sample. As Alexa struck again, and then Lindsay, my wife Erin saw her window of opportunity closing and dove in from my right. In seconds flat we had a full-fledged skirmish on our hands. The plate of haggis was gone in sixty seconds or less. I’d have ordered another plate of it, but the service was really slow at the Red Squirrel, and we were only in Edinburgh for the day.

The neeps were, well, the best turnips I’ve ever had. I know that’s not saying much, but if I had another pile of them here in front of me, I’d wolf them right down. The mashed potatoes were up to the task as well.


Several people have asked me about Scotch whisky. Of course we had some, and plenty of Scottish ale as well. (Why isn’t it Scottish whisky or Scotch ale? Beats me.) Look, here they are now!

The Scotch was very smoky. I’m not going to go on and on about what part of the tongue it was activating and all that; what I mean by “smoky” is, when you took a whiff, it was like somebody was having a fire in his fireplace. The kids were enthralled. It tasted just fine in that Willy Wonka Technicolor one-taste-after-another kind of way. It hit the sinuses like wasabi. It made us feel good. Beyond that I can’t say much; I’m as ignorant about Scotch as I am about, say, golfing technique or credit default swaps.

The ale, on the other hand, I can say more about. At the various places we had it, it was always served cool, not ice-cold, because it’s pumped from unrefrigerated underground tanks. You can see the effort required in drawing the beer; in comparison, the taps in American bars suddenly seem silly, like power steering or something. I prefer cool to ice-cold beer. And I like how the Scottish barmaids take their time filling the glass, letting the foam settle, brushing the extra foam off the top, then filling the glass a little more … it was all I could do, watching, not to yell, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” (It’s a little like watching your burrito being crafted at a really good taqueria.)

The other great thing about the pints in the UK is that they’re imperial pints, meaning they’re 568 ml, vs. the mere 473 ml of our lowly American pints. That is, they’re about 20% larger. It’s a rare instance of Americans not being at the forefront of Supersizing. Must be our puritanical streak. Wrap your hand around one of those big fat imperial pint glasses and you just feel good. Damn good, like an American should. How is that it the U.S. has fallen off the map in this all-important category?

(No, it’s not Obama’s fault. And at least he gets to drink beer, unlike that last guy.)

Beyond its glorious serving size, the Scottish ale was very good. What you see in my photo is McEwan’s, a brand very popular in Scotland. To do it justice I must, oddly enough, describe it in French: Présente des arômes de pâte à pain, de fleurs et une finale passablement fruitée avec des notes de cerises. Définitivement une bière de degustation. (Loosely translated, “It had a good and yummy taste, well worth drinking.”)

Full Scottish Breakfast

And now, on to the Full Scottish Breakfast. That has a nice ring to it, eh? Like Full Dinner Jacket. Now, if you aren’t familiar with this classic offering, here is a description:

For some reason, the place we went (an awful strip-mall outfit hawking kilts and t-shirts and other souvenirs, catering to the tour-bus set) gave us all seven items instead of asking us to choose five as their sign indicated. Before I go any further, however, I must draw your attention to the disclaimer above: do not use that picture as a stepladder!

In the photo below, starting with the vulcanized eggs and going clockwise, we have the tattie scone (very greasy, and tasting a lot like those horrid tortilla bowls that taco salad comes in at Chilis or TGI Fridays or whatever); the hash-brown cartridge (greasy, salty, a first cousin of what you get at McDonald’s); bacon (quite salty and chewy but still superior to most of the bacon in the U.S.); the sausage lozenge (properly called Lorne sausage, also very greasy and salty and somehow alarming in the way you’d expect haggis to be, except haggis isn’t); and blood pudding. The tomato half in the middle, warm and dried-out and about half as flavorful as it looked, was the highlight. The blood pudding was a chewy, mulchy little disk of congealed, salty pig’s blood, perhaps not as little as I’d have liked it to be, and a bit of a struggle to get down.

The best thing about this meal is that it ruled out lunch entirely, saving the family some money. It also had a very low glycemic index, with the meat products slowing down our bodies’ ability to process the starch, so we were well fuelled for a hike up Ben Nevis.

Other UK classics

Okay, now on to some British classics not specifically associated with Scotland. First, the ubiquitous fish & chips:

The fish was very fresh, very tasty, perfectly battered, with just the right amount of greasiness, and was served piping hot. Malt vinegar, of course, came stock. The chips, on the other hand, were tired, limp, almost frowsty. I’m sure it’s my fault. It was probably a judgment call on the part of the cook—he wondered aloud, “Are these too old to sell?” and the waitress said, “It’s just a table of bleedin’ American numpties, they won’t know the difference.”

As for the mushy peas served alongside, I never even got to taste them. When I did the standard plate trade with Erin, she went nuts on them and my plate came back without a trace of green mush. I can’t say I’d necessarily have enjoyed them anyway, but still. I have to assume they were tasty.

On to another classic, beans on toast. Check it out:

Given that these kids won’t even eat PBJs or bananas, I was pleasantly surprised when they gobbled up this British standard. They even ate their crusts for once. I sneaked a taste, and found beans on toast to be exactly as good as I expected: that is, not at all. Not shown: breakfast porridge, made from a mix whose name escapes me but which was very old-school. It was glue-like and perfectly serviceable and the kids liked it just fine.


I realize only now, when it’s too late, that I shouldn’t have saved the highlights for last. I can still feel those journalists breathing down my neck (even though they surely lost patience with this post at least 1,500 words ago). The main highlight was frankly that haggis, along with some haggis stromboli we had at the Elephant House, a little coffee shop where J.K. Rowling used to sit and write.

Beyond that, I particularly liked this salmon, which we had in a little restaurant in Mallaig, along the west coast of Scotland. I believe the place was called the Steam Inn (just in case you find yourself in Mallaig). I’d seen something about salmon being an amenity of the area, and when I asked the waitress “Is the salmon local?” she answered with the kind of “Yes!” that you utter when you find a $20 bill on the sidewalk.

I don’t know what that sauce was called but it was really tasty. The salmon was perfectly cooked—that is, rare, but with crispy edges. Dang it, hang on—I just drooled on myself.

This place also had great mussels. We had a lot of mussels during the trip, but these were the best. Why? Who knows. Inferior mussels are kind of creepy—they can be grainy, off-color, sometimes vaguely genital. But good mussels are all alike, right? Almost. Yes, these were like all good mussels everywhere, but better. Maybe it was the broth.

We also had a very good leg of lamb at the Ben Nevis Bar up in the Scottish Highlands. (By “we” I mean my wife ordered it and I moved in on it.) The Ben Nevis Bar is really more like an inn, whereas the Ben Nevis Inn, where we also went, is really more like a bar. (Between the dodgy dates on receipts and the pound/dollar conversion, sorting out the books after this trip was a real challenge.) Something about the Ben Nevis Bar originally struck me as touristy and inauthentic, so I wasn’t expecting anything good. Turns out the place has been there since 1806, and the food was solid. (This is where I got the fish & chips too.)

The lamb was on the fatty side, which a) I like, and b) meant that I got a fair bit of it.

Another food highlight was the great cheese shop across from the flat we were staying in in Glasgow. We went there a number of times. You walk in the door and this rich, dank cheese aroma envelops you. Big wheels and wedges and blocks of cheese everywhere, some of them with the rough exterior of a stone. Some of it was French, but they also had a lot from Scotland and Ireland. The shop folks always gave us free samples. The shop also had these groovy pointy baguettes, and other stuff like quince and whatnot.

We didn’t get too crazy with the cheese varieties because the kids begged for their usual favorites: brie and camembert. It was all really good. Look:

I don’t claim to be an expert on baguettes, but these were as good as anything I’ve ever had. I’m no pushover, either—except for in France, I’ve never had a halfway decent baguette outside of the Bay Area (which has a strangely large number of great bakeries).

The beer you see above, in the Hoegaarden glass, isn’t Hoegaarden. You knew that. It’s Chimay, which is to say nirvana. That’s Belgian, not Scottish, but this wasn’t a field trip, it was a vacation and I’ll buy Chimay at any opportunity.

A food-highlight surprise for us was the basic wheat bread we found in the supermarket in Glasgow. The brand was Vogel’s, and it was this somewhat heavy, hearty, really tasty bread. Maybe it was the bit of rye flour in it, or maybe the fermented yeast, that made it so good. It got kind of crunchy when we made croque-monsieurs with it (which we did a lot). Between the really good cheese and ham we got in Glasgow and this bread, these were the best croquet-monsieurs of my life, I now realize. I didn’t think to photograph this bread—I mean, who would?—but here is a portrait of my family rendered as Vogel’s toast:

Whoah, how did I do that? With my … iPhone? No, it’s not a mobile app, you nerd. It’s good-old-fashioned web app. Click here to render your own portrait in Vogel’s toast. (Do the Americans have the Toastarizer? Alas, no. Perhaps our days as a superpower are truly over.)

To be continued…

Look, I really didn’t mean to malign my journalist friends earlier. Lord knows, they have enough problems, with the newspaper industry totally cratering, having finally given in to its readers’ tastes, and market forces, by reducing the articles down to almost nothing, like literary white dwarves, with the all-ads-all-the-time format still managing to plump out the pages and gag your recycling bin. (Full disclosure: my friends are actually recovering journalists, who have moved on to better jobs but whose convictions have somehow not changed.)

So, where was I? Oh yes—I’m going to take the journalists’ advice and cut this off right here. Did I just hear a sigh of relief? Look, I’m just glad you made it this far. You’ve been great, really. And if, after a cooling-off period, you think you’re ready for more Food of Scotland, tune in next time for “Food of Scotland Part II – The Spawning,” where I’ll share our adventures in Scottish World Cuisine; Things We Didn’t Eat; Surprising Kids’ Menus; and Weirdness.

dana albert blog

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Diablo ex Machina

NOTE: This post is rated PG-13 for intense action, a suggestion of gore, and mild strong language.

In medias res

This post tells a shocking true story. Now, a common storytelling convention is to begin with exposition, introduce a conflict, proceed to rising action culminating in a climax, then have a bit of falling action and resolution at the end. But that can get rather dull. Luckily, fancy English major types like me sometimes follow an ancient epic poem tradition and begin in medias res, meaning in the middle of all the action, with other info being leaked out later, perhaps when the reader’s heart is racing and he could use a break. Meanwhile, employing more than one narrative voice can enhance a narrative, as shown by James Joyce and also that one “Magnum, PI” episode about the bank robbery.

Thus, I’ll start this post—a dark yarn about a bike ride gone really, really wrong—by quoting (as best I can from memory) my biking pal Dave who picks up the tale right from the middle:

“I come around the bend, and there’s this pickup truck in the road—a big one, a working man’s truck, with a welding rig in the back—and the driver and passenger are out on the road talking to Dana and the guys. And I’m thinking, uh oh, these pickup truck guys must not have taken too kindly to being passed by cyclists on this downhill, and now they’re mixing it up with our boys. So I’m figuring I’m about to join in on a big brawl. And by the time I get to Dana, he’s just sitting there trying to scream with his face ripped off.”

Okay, that was really irresponsible. I added that last sentence myself and it bears zero resemblance to anything Dave actually said (though it would never surprise me for him to quote “Mad Max” like that). But the rest of that quote is real (to the best of my recollection). Dave’s initial assessment of the situation was actually pretty far off.

Before I begin, here is our little group at the top of Mount Diablo, before anything went wrong:

What actually happened

Five pals and I were descending Mount Diablo via South Gate. We were going jolly fast, carving just right through the curves, and it was glorious. Lucas was lighting it up at the front, Steve was flying along behind him, and your faithful narrator was speeding along behind Steve. As I saw it, Steve was taking it a bit easier than Lucas through the curves and was accelerating out of them to get back in Lucas’ draft. I in turn, being a responsible family man, was taking the curves a bit easier than Steve, and hauling ass out of them to get back into his draft. I was out of the saddle quite a bit. (Oops, there I go, providing exposition.)

On the lower third of South Gate, past the little ranger’s kiosk, we take this left-hand curve and I’m sprinting out of it when suddenly Platino, my trusty bike, starts whipping around like a cobra being attacked by a mongoose. Time, of course, seems to slow down. (I guess I’ve fallen completely into the classic story arc; you’ve got your conflict right there.)

Time slows down

Huh? Time slows down? No, this isn’t a science fiction post. I’m talking about the strange way in which the brain perceives time during a moment of great danger. So long as panic doesn’t take hold, the brain can process information incredibly effectively and time really does seem to slow down. As the neuroscientist David Eagleman has said of this amazing processing ability, “It has a lot to do with your amygdala acting as an emergency control center that gets all the other parts of the brain to quit mucking around with their daily tasks and concentrate all the resources on the one, main thing that is happening. It is like being an athlete or performer ‘in the zone.’” (For a great article on this topic, click here. Eagleman’s quote is from this Q&A session. For an article on how this phenomenon relates to cycling in particular, click here.)

When an experienced bicycle racer—who is already “in the zone” during a downhill—is thrust into a dangerous situation, this “emergency control center” effect is pronounced. Cycling is a pretty orderly affair when done right, and even the crash situations generally fall into one or another fairly predictable category. The action you need to take is usually pretty obvious, whether or not you can manage to execute it. When a cyclist loses control, the result—either a crash or a save—is not long in coming; maybe a few seconds at most. But those few seconds can seem like a lot longer when the veteran rider’s amygdala kicks into high gear.

So it is when I lose control on this Mount Diablo descent. I even have time to think, “What the hell is going on?” The bike has lurched to the right, and I’ve managed to change its trajectory but it seems I’ve overcorrected—now I’m heading into the left lane, toward an oncoming car. (Am I scared? No, fear is conscious reaction, one of the mental processes that gets pushed to the back burner.) The car is pretty far down the road and not going very fast, so my immediate concern is getting the bike back upright and in the right lane.


The trouble is, my bike refuses to respond. Platino, my normally compliant show horse, a star in the dressage event, has become a bucking bronco. A typical problem, such loss of traction due to road conditions, doesn’t foul up a bike completely—there are generally ways to get it back in line. For example, a few months back I punctured going into a sharp curve at high speed, but was able to swing the bike back upright to regain traction, lean back over to avoid hitting the embankment, right the bike again, and then brake to a stop. But now, on this road, the bike feels utterly foreign, not even like a bike anymore. I’m no longer over it—I’m basically next to it, like I’m a motorcycle road racer or something.

Weirdest of all, the top tube of the frame (the crossbar) is resting under my right thigh, near the back of my knee. And the bike’s wheels are no longer pointing down the hill, though that’s the direction I’m going. So I’m sliding—but I’m somehow not down yet. I’m keeping tabs on the approaching car but it’s not approaching very fast. I slide for what seems like a remarkably long time, which is good: delaying the crash is the name of the game. My brother Max, a brilliant descender, describes the difference between a novice and an expert in such situations: “The novice wants to get it all over with as soon as possible. He’s like, ‘I don’t want to be here. This is bullshit.’ But the expert knows that the longer he can stay up, the better off he’ll be.” It’s true: if you can delay the crash long enough to slow down a bit, you’ll do a lot less damage.

Disconcertingly, nothing in my library of past engagements feels remotely like this crazy slide. The closest match I can find is a stunt I do for my kids where I sit sideways on my top tube, legs stretched out for comic Pee Wee Herman effect. So I work with that motif. I’m still lucid, still refusing to panic; in fact, I’m thinking, “I can save this!” I even have time to contemplate that if I pull this out, it’ll be one of the greatest saves in cycling history.

But fate cannot be stalled forever. Abruptly, the bike seems to high-side: the kind of crash where the tires are sliding, the bike at an acute angle to the ground, and then suddenly the tires catch and the bike flips over the other way like a pancake, driving the rider into the ground.


WHAP! I am one with the asphalt. But I don’t come to a stop right away. I have time to think, “Wow—that’s gotta hurt.” That and “Damnit!” Platino is no longer with me. I let out a yell—sort of an incoherent and/or profane version of “OOF!” It’s not like I’m sliding for long, of course—I have totally augered in. Now the crash is officially over and it’s time to get up and out of the road. But first I take a long millisecond or two to think, “Erin [my wife] is going to kill me.” Then I move on to, “What the hell just happened? Why did I crash? I took that curve exactly right. Is my proficiency in this sport an illusion? Have I just been insanely lucky for the last thirty years?” I pinch my front tire: fully inflated.

Now I’m up and on my feet and the car that had been oozing its way toward me has stopped. It’s two old people and the driver looks pissed. He’s giving me serious stink-eye. As I collect my bike I thank the guy for being alert and not running me over. He just stares. As I haul Platino off onto the shoulder, Lucas and Steve have made their way back up to me. Then—oops, almost forgot my pedal. I snatch it out of the road and get over to the shoulder.

Wait. WTF? What’s my pedal doing off my bike? Oh, wow: the right crankarm has snapped, a couple inches from the pedal. Bing! Mystery solved: crash caused by catastrophic component failure during a full sprint on a descent. Basically a no-win scenario. I’m relieved, actually. To finally know what happened, after those a long few seconds of complete bafflement, is a great relief. I won’t live the rest of my life wondering what obscure physical law I’d unknowingly broken that resulted in this crash. On future descents, I won’t have to second-guess my ability … just my equipment.


One or two of my bike pals arrive, and I’m really glad they weren’t closer behind—they might have run me over. On the other hand, they didn’t get to watch the mêlée, which must have been something to see. Oh well. Then a pickup truck rolls up. It’s a big one, a working man’s truck, with a welding rig in the back. We’d passed it a bit earlier (the driver had pulled over to the side to let us by). The driver and passenger get out (blue-collar types; ball caps, sunglasses). They offer to give me a ride. I hesitate: could they be serious? They are. My friend Dave arrives and joins in the standard fuss over me and my bike.

Am I okay? I rotate my arm all around. My wrist, elbow, and shoulder are wanged real good. Do they hurt? Of course. But is it that particular type of pain that makes you want to cradle the joint, shelter it, put it to bed, swaddle it? No. I think I’m good. Platino looks mostly okay, too. Brake levers are twisted inward, but the saddle and bar tap aren’t even ripped, and the wheels aren’t potato-chipped. My bike gets loaded into the back of the truck.

There are of course further logistics to sort out. I realize that Dave, having parked his car at my place before the ride, should ride back with me in the truck. After all, if he showed up at my house for his car before I made it home, or I showed up before him, my wife and kids would be spooked something fierce: two men left, only one came back! It also occurs to me (mostly in jest), “What if the guys in the truck have a box of Ziploc freezer bags with my name on it?”

They ’re not psychos, of course—they’re really nice. The driver is from Kentucky. The passenger is from Germany by way of San Diego. They’re here building a pipeline of some kind in Modesto. It’s a day off, they just finished running up Mount Diablo, and they’re happy to help a guy out. They drive Dave and me to Bart.


An announcement—“I just crashed descending Mount Diablo!”—is no way to break the news to the family. The trick is, you let them take it for granted that everything is fine, and then you gradually relate the facts of the case. So on the way to my house from Bart, Dave and I stopped at the corner grocery and bought a loaf of Acme olive bread. Then we breezed into the house, chatting merrily, thrilling the kids with the bread, and it was a good couple minutes before my daughter Lindsay asked, “What’s that scrape on your knee?” By this point it was too late for anybody to get spooked, and I said airily, “Oh, I took a little spill on my bike.” Gradually I related the rest of the story, tossing out each fact—the broken crank, the broken helmet, the speed involved, my incredible luck—as lightly as possible.

The bike, as I mentioned before, wasn’t much damaged (other than the crank). I ruined one sock but my other clothing amazingly came out pretty much okay. My helmet has a tiny hairline crack, just enough to require replacement but not enough to suggest I hit my head hard at all, which as far as I know I didn’t. At no point did my mind get foggy—at least any foggier than usual. (I am blond, after all.)

I came through with remarkably little injury: a scuffed wrist, a dime-sized spot of road rash on my right knee, a pea-sized spot on my right ankle, another little dollop of road rash on my right elbow, another on my left ankle (oddly enough), and my right elbow had some swelling. My right shoulder got a bit of a scrape. My shoulder, elbow, spine, and especially my neck were sore for a couple of days but nothing an Advil or two couldn’t fix. I even shaved, hours after getting home, just to test the range of motion of my shoulder and elbow (the same ones I fell on a few years ago, following which I sported a full beard for awhile).

My children cleaned up my token road rash. This was their idea. They begged me to let them do it, intrigued mainly by the clear bandages I’d bought. They argued over who got what wound. They did a great job scrubbing out my scrapes because they did exactly as I instructed, not worrying about how much it must hurt. Of course they were aware that it hurt; in fact, it turns out that an adult’s pain threshold is fascinating to a child. (Perhaps they indulged in a little schadenfreude? This is for not having cable TV!” they might think, or “This is for all the boring lectures!”) Look at their handiwork:

Reconstruction of the crash event

So what really happened? With the help of a photo taken by one of my teammates, I was able to piece together the way in which this most bizarre of crashes unfolded. Look at the white squiggle I left on the road:
A black squiggle would make sense—I was laying down a rubber road straight to freedom! But a light squiggle? Huh?

After much pondering, I can explain it. The right crank was surely under pressure when it broke, so it must have been between the 1 and 5 o’clock position. Since the right pedal was no longer pushing back against my foot, all my weight pitched violently to the right. This leaned the bike way over to the right, making it slide leftward. I tried to right the bike by throwing my weight back over to the left, but without the right pedal to help anchor me to the bike, my body just went past the bike instead of bringing it upright. That’s how my right leg got hooked over the top tube. The broken right crank must have been pointing straight down and dragging on the ground, making that squiggle on the road surface. Sure enough, the leading corner of the crank stub is blackened:

Though the bike had to have been leaned way over, the crank stub was basically holding it up (kind of a tripod effect). Meanwhile, I was on the other side of the frame, basically surfing the bike along the ground.

I figure that what I had originally taken for a high-side scenario was actually the crank digging in enough to stop sliding. When it ground to a halt the bike still had forward momentum, so it was instantly popped the rest of the way over. I guess I kind of kept going, which is how I managed to hit my helmet and shoulder on the ground. (My pal Craig came around the curve just in time to see me sprawl on the pavement. As he tells it, I let out a “nice, primal scream.”) The bike must have gotten flipped up at some point, since both brake levers were folded in by the end.

Always wear your helmet. Zoom in on this photo and you’ll see why.

It’s kind of amazing how long the bike dragged along on that crank stub (based on the length of that squiggle). I’ll bet that’s how we (Platino and I) came to shed so much speed. I’d been rather perplexed at the low amount of damage we sustained given how fast we came out of that curve. Looking at my bike computer log, I could see that for the 4½ miles before the crash, I’d averaged 30 mph, and hadn’t slowed down much for the curves. The minimal damage suggests that between losing control and finally smacking down I really get rid of some speed. Man did I luck out.

I asked the rest of the Diablo Six if this explanation made sense, and Steve e-mailed back, “I’m having a hard time visualizing what you describe. What do you say we go out and recreate the event to test your theory.” Sounds like an episode of “ChiPs!Too bad that show isn’t still on the air—my teammates and I could write the screenplay! We’d begin in medias res and everything!


  1. “Dark yarn” is:

    1. A nice summary of this post

    2. A phrase I used earlier in this post

    3. A good name for a rock band

    4. All of the above

  2. The problem with the title “Diablo ex Machina” is:

    1. It should be “Diabolus ex Machina, since “ex Machina” is Latin but “Diablo” is Spanish

    2. It actually is the name of a rock band

    3. Nothing that isn’t mitigated by the nice play on “Mount Diablo

    4. Answers (a) and (c) above

  3. The moral of this story is:

    1. To protect your riding privileges, take great care when notifying your wife of a bicycle crash

    2. Begin cycling young so you can learn the ropes before your bones, and even your brain, get too brittle

    3. Always remember that, although sports are dangerous, so is sitting around the house getting depressed and out of shape

    4. All of the above

The answer to all three questions is, of course, (d). Note that there is a rock band called Diabolus ex Machina.

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