Friday, September 30, 2016

Bolognese Ragu for Pasta!


I posted awhile back about the who-what-where-when-why-how of hand-cranked homemade pasta.  That’s all well and good, but what are you gonna put on the pasta?  I’ll take care of that here.  (Note:  if you’re a vegetarian or adhere to a strict kosher diet, this post is not for you.)

Who, where, and when

I learned how to make this Bolognese Ragu sauce at a half-day class at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco.  We cooked a variety of dishes that day, including these squids that were flashy but weird, and a risotto that had so much butter in it, I couldn’t bear to watch.  I threw myself into the Bolognese, because somebody had to:  it’s supposed to cook for at least 4-5 hours, and we only had 2 hours, so it had to be reduced on high heat, which meant continuous—and fast—stirring for over an hour.  I missed some other dishes, but that’s okay because the Bolognese was one of the better things we made.  (There was a salmon dish that was also delicious when we were sneaking little tastes—okay, big hunks—of it, but by the time it was put in a steel tub, placed over a flame to stay warm, and eventually consumed, it was all dried out.  That was the most important thing I learned from that cooking class, besides the Bolognese.)


Bolognese is pronounced “bowl-ug-NAY-zay” (according to my Italian chef/instructor at CCA).  I’m torn as to telling you exactly what goes into this sauce.  On the one hand, the CCA surely retains the intellectual property rights to the recipe.  On the other hand, there are probably hundreds of recipes just like it all over the Internet; a cursory search just now turned up a recipe with almost exactly the same ingredients.  The only difference in this random recipe I found is that it calls for vegetable oil, which—being a thinking person—you would instantly swap out for olive oil, making this recipe identical to the CCA one.  So CCA couldn’t exactly call it a closely guarded secret.

That said, I will honor the implicit copyright their printed recipe holds—that is, I won’t scan in my hard copy—though this is a pity because it’s absolutely full of grammatical errors and repeated steps and other errors that make it comically hard to follow.  Instead I’ll give you my own version, which I wrote out on the whiteboard at my brother’s house so his family and I could make it together.

Perhaps that recipe is from memory, because it’s incomplete.  I forgot to list salt.  How much salt?  To taste.  This is because this recipe doesn’t scale perfectly (which you should know because the quantities listed above are for a huge amount).  Watch the salt if you scale up … I over-salted once.  Distraught, I called my mom, who described the potato trick (cook a bunch of potato wedges in it to absorb the salt) and I was saved.

Onions are a crucial ingredient because the first thing they always do in a cooking class is teach you how to chop an onion.  This is to impart the proper technique, of course, but also to trick the students into doing a lot of prep work for the CCA employees.  (Why else would they have us chop 2 or 3 onions each?)  The CCA doubles as a restaurant, you see.  What an ingenious idea:  it’s not just unpaid labor; people are actually paying to help the sous-chefs.  Anyway, my printed recipe says “coarsely chopped” but “coarsely” is crossed out and “finely” written in.  Whose intellectual property is this revision?  I can’t remember. 

A lot of butter is involved.  But don’t worry, it’s completely offset, health-wise, by the extra virgin olive oil.  Buy something expensive because cheap olive oil is sometimes stretched with other crap like hazelnut or sunflower-seed oil.  (Checking the ingredients won’t help—this stretching is often done illegally.  There was a whole exposé about it—click here.)  Don’t worry about the cost … when you factor in how much time you’ll spend on this sauce, the financial outlay becomes irrelevant.

Naturally there are celery and carrots to complement the onion, completing the mirepoix trifecta.  And then you’ve got your ground beef.  Just look at the beef in the photo above.  It’s beautiful.  I always use grass-fed ground beef.  Not only does it taste better, but it’s humane.  Feedlots are like concentration camps for cows, and even in your nicer feedlots (like Neiman Ranch’s) the practice is cruel because the poor cows can’t properly digest grain.  This leads to all kinds of misery and health problems.  I buy high-end organic beef from local grass-fed cows who are “encouraged to socialize.”  No joke.  As a kid I was never encouraged to socialize—in fact I was discouraged from it by the dickheads on the playground—so these cows have arguably had a better life than I.  Is grass-fed worth the money?  Sure!  Beef is bad for you, so it should be a treat, and our treats can and should be expensive, so we don’t get into the bad habit of enjoying them too frequently.

Is beef still bad for you when it’s cooked with good things like tomatoes and onions and carrots and celery?  Well, yeah, when it’s also cooked in a lot of butter and oil.  Look, this sauce is a solid at room temperature.  It can’t be good for you.  (But it’s good for your soul!)

Can you use buffalo instead of beef?  Sure, I’ve done it and to good effect.  And you don’t have to scrutinize the label because it’s a federal offense to give antibiotics to a buffalo.  I know this sounds crazy, but I just fact-checked it on the Internet.  In the process, I learned something else:

Isn’t it funny what people search on?  Just think:  countless people want to give people the finger, and they do it, but they also worry about getting arrested.  God help us all.  I also learned here that a) it’s illegal to give growth hormones to bison; b) it’s not actually illegal to give antibiotics to bison, but they’re not routinely used and “most major markets have strict protocols that call for verification that the animal wasn't treated with antibiotics”; c) bison aren’t really related to buffalo; and d) the stuff we call buffalo is actually bison so this distinction isn’t important.

Someone once told me not to use cheap wine for cooking, so I don’t.  And use good, organic, whole milk and some freshly grated nutmeg (or what the hell, pre-ground Spice Islands, it probably doesn’t matter). 

The whole, canned, peeled tomatoes you see above cost more, pound for pound, than commercial jarred  spaghetti sauce—but they’re worth it.  And of course there’s salt.  Morton’s table salt?  Fancy sea salt?  Doesn’t matter which … just don’t settle on x quantity of table salt this time and then use x quantity of sea salt later—that would be a disaster.  Sea salt is way saltier.  Salt to taste, always to taste.

(What?  No garlic?  Nope!  Weird, innit?  And there are no other spices either.  No oregano, no basil, none of that stuff that vegans feel compelled to throw in everything.  The other ingredients are so darn good, you just don’t need anything else.  Have I tinkered with this recipe by adding stuff?  Nope.  That would be like salting or sugaring a good Belgian ale.)


I’ll caution you again:  a large batch this recipe takes half a day of basically continuous work.  That is, it’s even more work than reading this blog post.  So why would you take the trouble?

You take the trouble because it is:  So. Dang. Good.  An epicurean friend of mine, the first time I served this to him, chewed silently for a moment, staring off into space, seeming to deeply consider the matter of this sauce, before stating, “This is so good it’s making me angry.”  And I got his point.  Perhaps you will, too, once you’ve tasted it for yourself.

Moreover, if you’re going to make handmade pasta—which you really should do—you need to pair it with a suitably excellent sauce.  Nothing in the grocery store will do (not even these crazy high-end sauces that are like $8 a jar).  And let’s face it, that recipe you got from your friend’s mom isn’t bad, but isn’t anywhere near as good as what you’ll get in a fine Italian restaurant.  And this Bolognese is better than what you’d get in most restaurants.

(I came to this wisdom only somewhat recently.  As a teenager, I made hand-cranked pasta with my friends and brothers all the time, but we never did anything appropriate for sauce.  Usually we just grabbed “the paint can,” which was our nickname for the gallon can of Ragu Old World Style we could buy at King Stoopid’s, our local grocery, for like $7.  It looked and tasted about like tomato soup.)

The other reason to take the trouble is that this recipe isn’t actually that difficult.  It’s not like some soufflé, or a perfectly poached egg, or anything you bake, where practice, skill, and finesse are required.  Bolognese would be hard to screw up.  If you put in the time and energy, it’ll come out great every time. 

I mainly make this Bolognese when I have houseguests (especially family, since there are lots of nieces and nephews to whom I can outsource the endless task of stirring and simmering it), and every year I host a huge pasta party for my bike club.  I like to think I’ve made a lot of people angry.


So here’s what you do.  Get a very large pan or pot or a Dutch oven.  Don’t use some cheap tinny thing because your sauce will scorch.  (The stainless steel paella pan you’ll see in my photos has a copper core.)  If you’re making a lot, use two vessels or you’ll be at the stove all day.  Turn the flame to medium.  Melt the butter in the oil.  (You’ll be staring at a frightening amount of fat, perhaps more than you’ve ever seen in one place, but don’t kid yourself that restaurants don’t use just as much.  That’s why their food is so good, and why you shouldn’t eat out too often.)  Sauté the onion until it’s translucent.  (No, you don’t have to hold it up to the light.)  Add the celery and carrots, cook them a couple minutes, and then put in the beef.  Add a little salt.  Mash the beef around in there until it’s not so red, but not yet brown.  Don’t ever brown meat!  It should look just a bit more cooked than this:

Pour in the wine, turn up the flame to medium-high, and cook until the wine has pretty much evaporated.  This will take a good while.  And you have to stir it fairly often.   It can seem kind of pointless, but it isn’t.  While that cooks down, open your cans of tomatoes, measure out your milk, and add the nutmug to your milk.  When the wine is mostly gone, you add the milk.  Look at this photo … the wine isn’t completely gone, just mostly gone.

Ahh, look at how nice and opaque that milk is.  Don’t use 2% or skim.  Why would you?  The whole idea here is packing as much fat as possible into a food that somehow isn’t greasy.  That’s like alchemy.  I grew up drinking powdered milk, which was so thin and weak it was translucent and almost had a blue tint to it.  (But don’t use cream.  There’s a limit to this fat-equals-flavor principle.)  Now you cook this down again until most of the liquid has gone.  Why not just add milk powder?  Look, would you give that up already?  There are no shortcuts!  The point is that the meat cooks in the milk.  This makes it really tender to where it will practically dissolve later, in the tomatoes.  Think about it:  this sauce cooks for like 5 or 6 hours … if you didn’t do this magical thing with the milk, the meat could get tough eventually.

When the milk is cooked off, you throw in your tomatoes, whole.  You don’t have to pre-chop them or anything.  Throw the juices in there too … even though that’ll make this thing a liquid all over again.  Seems kind of futile, right?  How every time you reduce the sauce, I tell you to add a bunch more liquid?  Like you’re stuck on the wheel of life and can’t get off?  Yeah, it’s true.  At least you don’t have to go crazy mashing up the tomatoes.  They’ll basically dissolve on their own over time.

From here, you’re just going to spend the next 4 hours or so reducing the sauce over low heat, stirring it frequently.  Could you lower the heat to barely simmering and stir it less frequently?  Sure, but it’ll have to cook for 5 or 6 hours.  Your call.  (If you make a smaller batch it won’t have to cook quite as long.)

I snapped the photo above at 4:48 p.m., which was two hours into the process.  Note the timestamps, and the depth of the sauce in the pot, in the next 4 photos.

Salt this to taste toward the end.  Err on the side of too little, since diners can always add more later, but don’t underdo it either because some people don’t understand about salting their food.  I myself used to think salting food made it salty.  It doesn’t, if you do it right … it just makes it tasty.

That last photo should show you what the Bolognese looks like when it’s done.  Rule of thumb:  when you drag your wooden spoon through it, the bottom of the pan should be visible for a second before the sauce oozes back down.  It’s almost not a sauce at this point.  It should be very, very thick.  Thicker than chili.  Lift up a blob of it on the spoon, tip it over, and it should tumble off the spoon.  If it flows or pours down, it’s not sufficiently reduced yet.

Now, if you’re making a really large batch like this, you want to cool the leftover sauce down pretty quickly.  I learned this from a friend who worked at Skyline Chili in Cincinnati.  He said after they made a giant batch, they’d put a huge block of ice in the middle—“chilling it down”—so it wouldn’t hit that perfect temperature at which stuff starts to grow in it.  Now, I’m not about to add fricking ice (i.e., water) to my Bolognese once I’ve finally got it nice and thick.  So I spoon it into small glass containers to cool faster.  (Don’t use plastic.  The sauce is too hot, and besides, it’ll stain the plastic.)  Throw these in the fridge with the tops loose so the steam can escape.  Snap the tops down later.

So, how do you serve this sauce?  Over handmade pasta, of course, though good commercial pasta like De Cecco is perfectly good as well.  Now, you shouldn’t heap this sauce on there in the quantities of a normal marinara sauce.  Bolognese is super-rich.  Toss that pasta with extra virgin olive oil, and then add just enough Bolognese.  Mix it around a bit on the plate, or dab into it, whatever, and you can always add a bit more sauce later if you were too stingy at first. 

Don’t go serving a giant portion of this to a kid because he might not need that much, or (gasp) even want that much.  Kids can be such little trolls, picking at really good food before getting distracted and wandering off, or demanding more garlic bread instead.  It’s a crime wasting any of this glorious Bolognese, after all that work!  Those damn kids!  You know what I do?  When I have my big pasta party, I start the evening with a giant batch of homemade mac ‘n’ cheese and let the philistine little runts get full on that!  Save the Bolognese for the adults!  (Note:  my own children are an exception.  They would never waste this glorious food.  In fact, I sometimes worry they’ll join forces and attack me for my plate.)

And whatever you do, don’t use that horrible powdered parmesan, that comes in the green cardboard canister!  And don’t use the pre-shredded stuff in the tub, either.  Use a hunk of hard parmesan and grate it right over the pasta.  I like to use a Microplane grater (look at the photo of the ingredients—it’s there on the right), which is really more like a zester, and shaves the cheese so finely it melts like snowflakes.  Throw a little shredded Italian parsley on there too if you’ve got it.


Is there more to life than Bolognese?  Well, yes, in fact, but that’s a whole other post.

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Should You Tip Uber Drivers?


Are you supposed to tip your Uber driver?  There is no simple answer.  You can go read five different articles on this, like I did, and come away confused.  Or you can read this post, which arrives at a specific conclusion, and includes some discussion of the culturally tricky practice of tipping in general.

Our tale begins

I used Uber for the first time recently.  I was traveling on business and needed to get to the airport in a foreign city, and had been burned by the usurious cab fare three times already.  (In those cases I’d priced Uber, and noted that it was cheaper, but chickened out.)  Coached by some colleagues, I downloaded the Uber app and ordered the car without a hitch, and even found my driver, among a row of them waiting for passengers (despite the make, model, and license plate of his car not matching what the app foretold).  The only problem was, I forgot to ask my colleagues about tipping.  So I spent the ride to the airport researching this matter on my phone, and though I got pretty carsick I never did get a definitive answer.  I ultimately decided to give the guy a few bucks, and he seemed very pleasantly surprised.  (“Oh!” he said with a start.  Either he was truly taken aback, or a great actor.)

When I got home, the matter came up again as I did my expense report.  Would my company approve this tip, as a separate line item?  Or would this raise a flag, kicking off some bureaucratic process and wasting everybody’s time?  Now the question wasn’t just “what should I do?” but “what is typical?”

The confusion

During that first Uber ride, the articles I read were non-definitive.  The first Google response (i.e., big text instead of just a link) said, “While tipping your driver is not required, it is not against Uber policy for the driver to accept cash tips.”  Okay, so I won’t be in trouble if I tip, but I still don’t know if saving my money makes me a dick.  A San Jose Mercury News article suggests that the drivers, not society, are behind this tip movement:  “When it comes to tipping, some Uber drivers have started to take matters into their own hands.”  It quotes the Uber website as saying, “You don’t need cash when you ride with Uber. Once you arrive at your destination, your fare is automatically charged to your credit card on file—there’s no need to tip.” The article goes on to quote a driver who threatens to give riders one-star reviews if they don’t tip:  “Giving one star is the only recourse I have.  That ensures they’ll never get in my car again.”   This article had me leaning toward not tipping, on the basis that greedy drivers were holding us hostage.

But my next Google result, an article on the CBS news website, quoted an etiquette consultant:  “The apps are designed for us to evolve to a cashless society; however, that doesn't mean we [have to] become heartless in the process.”  That is, the issue isn’t necessarily Uber’s to decide.  Indeed, two lawsuits filed by drivers led to a settlement compelling Uber to modify its policy, so that—while they still refuse to enable tipping on their app—they now also say, “You can tip if you want to reward good service, however, and drivers can accept.”

Past news stories aside, here’s what Uber’s website says about tipping as of today.  First, when I started to type my inquiry, the website autofilled what I suspected I was asking about:

Okay, I thought, so they call drivers “couriers” for some reason.  So I clicked that and got this answer:

In  case the snapshot above isn’t totally legible, it says, “While Uber does not require eaters to offer a cash tip, you are welcome to do so.”  Eaters?  WTF!?  Is this just a little glitch, indicating that Uber didn’t exactly slave over this verbiage?  Or are they referring to their UberEATS app?  If it’s the latter, I’m more confused than ever, because they’ve answered the question of tipping a food delivery driver, but not a standard Uber driver.  Meanwhile, a passenger consulting the Uber website could be excused for interpreting the answer as, “You can tip if you eat in the car.” 

As it turns out, the website does address tipping of drivers but only if you ask the specific question, “Can I tip my driver with the app.”  To this it responds, “Uber is a cashless experience. Tipping is voluntary. Tips are not included in the fare, nor are they expected or required.”  This is better, but Uber still doesn’t tell you what you ought to do, but only what you’re allowed to do. (And technically, we’re allowed to stiff waiters and cabbies.)

By the way, searching the Uber website on “Should I tip” produces the same autofill result over and over, as though Uber were trying to dodge the question:

With this search, there is no link to any other question.  In other words, you cannot actually ask Uber if you should tip.

The article that finally settled the matter for me was in the Boston Globe, which stated, “Uber, facing a chorus of criticism from its drivers for refusing to add a tipping function to its app, is mustering a provocative argument:  Tipping is inherently unfair because of customers’ unconscious racial biases.”  Uber, the article says, cited two studies, one which concluded that “consumers of both races discriminate against black service providers by tipping them less than white service providers,” and the other finding that “statistical oddities” abound with tipping, such as “larger fares that ended in the digits 0 or 5, such as $40 or $55, earned cabbies far smaller tips, on average, than similar fares that happened to end in other digits.”  The Uber spokesman explained their position as being that accepting tips would result in “a discriminatory system in which two drivers who perform the same work could receive substantially different wages.”

Well, how convenient!  An Uber customer who is naturally, instinctively loathe to part with his money how has a big, bright, lofty ethical and philosophical excuse not to tip.  “Yeah, I could give this guy a few bucks, but I’d be part of the problem!  I’d be an enabler, spreading discrimination through my supposed largesse!  If I give this driver extra money, I’m feeding into a racist system!” and blah, blah, blah.  This entire line of reasoning left a bad taste in my mouth.

(A Bloomberg columnist equates tipping on Uber with empowering a nefarious social movement to deprive us of our God-given right to convenience:  “Although my driver was fine and I’m generally a good tipper, I resisted the instinct to comply. He got a five-star rating but nothing further — not because I’d begrudge him the extra money, but because the only way to preserve the frictionless Uber experience is for riders to defy the social pressure to tip.”  Just in case you were tempted to side with the guy who’s trying to make a living, she continues, “Everybody seems more concerned with helping drivers cheat on their taxes by collecting unreported cash than with preserving the frictionless arrival that makes Uber so pleasant.”  Convenience-addicted, faux-idealistic cheapskates of the world, unite!)

The problem I have with the “discriminatory system” argument—beyond its giving people a way to lie to themselves about being cheap—is that it fails to address the reality that all tipping is prone to discrimination, as is giving one candidate a job versus another, or marrying one person and not another, and so forth.  By this “enabler” logic, we should stop tipping everybody until all injustice in the tipping world is corrected.  But of course that’s absurd; we all participate in the reality of life’s unfairness every day of our lives.  In a perfect world, perhaps we’d tip the undocumented immigrant laborers who keep the cost of our food so low.  I don’t think the best solution is to stiff anybody or everybody in the service sector.  An unfair tip is still more than nothing.

Myself, I plan to tip Uber drivers going forward, just like cabbies.  Will I give the Uber driver extra money because he bothered to pick up a newbie like me, with so few rides feeding my Uber rating?  No, I can’t be bothered with such minutiae.  But this does raise a larger question.

How much should we be tipping?

The etiquette expert whom CBS consulted recommends that we tip Uber drivers 20% of the cost of the ride.  That strikes me as pretty generous, especially as it comes right on the heels of not tipping at all.  I don’t want to expose myself to the wrath of Internet trolls, so I won’t say how much I generally tip cabbies, but it’s a lot less than 20%, especially when I’m traveling on business and don’t want to get in trouble for being too generous with my employer’s money.

You know who I think make far too much money in tips?  Bartenders.  I always tip a buck a drink.  That works out to about 15-20% because I only drink beer.  But should bartenders be tipped like this—i.e., as much as waiters?  After all, the bartender only has to walk about ten feet back and forth to the tap, and spends like 30 seconds filling my glass.  That’s a lot easier than the waiter helping me decide what to order, and making separate trips for the drinks, appetizers, entrees, and dessert, plus extra visits to check in and fill my water.  Yeah, the total tab is higher, but it comes after like half an hour of service.  Bartenders are getting tipped every few minutes.

And if we’re going to worry about unconscious motivations for tipping more, think of how public a gesture tipping is at a bar.  You’re not just writing something on your credit card receipt; you’re dropping cash in plain sight.  I’ve noticed that when I’m drinking with friends, the tip is always a buck a beer—but when I’m drinking with associates, or new friends, or friends of friends, it’s often two bucks.  Nobody wants to look cheap.

On the flip side, I think hotel maids are badly under-tipped.  TripAdvisor suggests tipping “$2-3 per night up to $5” and Lizzie Post in Travel And Leisure magazine says, “a couple dollars a day” regardless of the price of the hotel, on the grounds that “if you’re cleaning a hotel room, you’re cleaning a hotel room.”  This is a serious departure from restaurants and bars where, if you order expensive food and booze, the 15-20% rule automatically increases the tip even though the job wasn’t any harder.  And cleaning a room is much harder than serving food or drinks, and not much of a stepping stone to anything.  Society needs to rethink how we tip hotel housekeeping staff.

Whom shouldn’t we be tipping?

My wife and I disagree on whether you tip a hotel concierge for recommending a restaurant.  She thinks that’s the point of his offer, and one of the hazards of staying at a fancy place.  I figure a good rule of thumb for tipping is this:  would I ask a friend to do this service for me, and expect that friend to happily oblige?  I wouldn’t ask a friend to drive me to the airport, or make my bed, so I tip cabbies and hotel housekeepers.  But I’d totally ask a friend for restaurant advice, so I don’t tip for this.  The concierge can silently curse me if he wants.  (Click here for what I hope isn’t too similar a declaration of tipping policy.)

The most useless service I’ve ever tipped for was at the Carnelian Room, a really high-end restaurant atop one of the tallest buildings in San Francisco.  There was a guy in the restroom handing out towels after you washed your hands.  (This was at a wedding reception, with the booze freely flowing, so I was visiting that restroom a lot.)  I strongly disliked this service.  First of all, how hard is it to grab my own towel?  Second, how reasonable is it to have to handle currency right after washing my hands, and right before going back to my meal?  Paper money is probably the filthiest thing we handle on a regular basis.  I just did a quick survey of my wallet, and the average age of a bill in there is six years.  Think of the thousands and thousands of people who have handled that money.  Is it in any way reasonable to pay a guy for compromising my hygiene?

The latest tipping conundrum I came across was at an airport restaurant.  It’s was a pretty upscale place ($22 for a burger) and every seat was equipped with a table-mounted iPad and a credit card magstripe reader.  The menu was on the iPad, as was the POS software.  It was entirely possible—and indeed the whole idea—for diners to go through their entire meal without speaking a word to anybody.  True, a human brought the food to the table, but that happens with counter service as well.  So how much should you tip an iPad app?  Unlike Uber, this app had the tipping function built right in, and it even suggested several (generous) amounts, just like Square does.  It’s easy enough to just drop a couple bucks in a jar for counter service, but would feel weird hitting the “custom” button and typing in a really meager tip.  I ended up tipping 20%, just to play it safe.  After all, if the (quasi-) waiters here are being paid below minimum wage like most waiters, they’re probably suffering financial losses based on reasonable people reasonably refusing to generously tip an iPad app.

In conclusion

Clearly, tipping is a messy social tradition.  It would be really handy if Uber drivers everywhere assured us that they’re not allowed to accept tips, and/or that it’s a societal taboo to tip them, sure to be taken as a terribly insulting gesture.  But obviously that’s not the case, and the question isn’t going to be solved by the folks at the Uber home office.  Perhaps the best thing we can do is pester Uber to include a tip button in their app, or to pay drivers a per-trip bonus linked to the star rating given by the customer.  Or just take a cab.  Or better yet, ride your bike!

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Beer!


I got the idea for this post from the co-founder and CEO of Spoon University, which is a website devoted to a) educating college kids about how to “eat healthier,” and b) teaching college kids how to be online journalists. ( All Spoon content is written by students.)  The other day, the Spoon CEO said something like, “We have our most illuminating ‘moments’ when an article is shared widely, which happens when it strikes an emotional cord,” and as an example she cited a popular recent Spoon article about a beer based on Ben & Jerry’s chocolate-chip-cookie-dough ice cream.

I want college kids to love my blog and forward my posts, so I am taking on this subject myself.  Since I’ve already been scooped, I’ll just have to do a better job with this topic than the college kids did.  Watch me try.

The existing literature

I expected the main Spoon article to read like Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, but it was fairly down-to-earth and mostly just covered the basic facts:
  • New Belgium Brewing is making a beer “inspired by” Ben & Jerry’s chocolate-chip-cookie-dough ice cream
  • This is the second beer New Belgium has produced on this Ben & Jerry’s theme
  • They’re donating $50,000 of the proceeds from this new beer to a nonprofit environmental organization called Protect Our Winters
When I researched the topic on mainstream news sites, I really didn’t get any more information—so these Spoon kids seem well on their way to writing like the pros.  All the stories I found read like thinly veiled press releases.  And yet, this very minor news tidbit—another new seasonal beer!—has really generated a lot of press.  How did this indifferently reported story become so popular?  My theory is that people just really, really like beer.

Case in point:  I used my smartphone to photograph a beer recently, and because I’d accidently left Location Services turned on, Google Maps asked if I wanted to share the photo with future users investigating the pizza place where I snapped the photo.  It wasn’t a great photo or anything and didn’t capture the ambience of the place, much less showcase the pizza.  It was just a photo of a glass of beer, for Beck’sting.  But I thought heck, I’ll let Google use it.  They asked for a caption.  The beer was in a glass bearing the name of the pizza place, so after deliberating for 1/100th of a second I posted the caption “Pizza and beer … am I right?”  Amazingly, this photo has had 56 views already, despite the fact that you can easily tell from the thumbnail that it’s an utterly pointless photo. 

So:  beer.  People love to think about it.  Maybe beer + ice cream is some kind of magic pairing, capturing the minds and hearts of college kids everywhere.

What can I add to the coverage?

I will go further than the available news stories on this beer by answering the following questions:
  • Does drinking this beer increase one’s sex appeal?
  • Is it a good beer?
  • Is it a gimmick? 
As luck would have it, I’m traveling on business right now in the very locale where New Belgium is test-marketing this beer.  At an airport bar I ordered it, speaking really loudly so the attractive woman next to me would be sure to hear my bold and interesting choice.  I took a sip, and then waited.  I expected the woman next to me to say, “Well … how is it?”

After a minute or so she hadn’t said anything.  Had she not heard my daring, planet-saving order?  At this point the beer was two-thirds gone so I figured I better step up my game before it was too late.  “Hi,” I said to the woman.  This utterance didn’t come out very loud for some reason.  In fact it came out as kind of a high-pitched croak.  (Chocolate-chip-cookie-dough beer is only about 6% alcohol so it wasn’t exactly liquid courage, and I’m a shy person.)  The woman just stared at me like I was her dog and had just made a mess on the carpet.  But I wasn’t about to give up.  Summoning all my verve, I said, “Airports and beer … am I right?”  At this, the woman abruptly got up and walked away, leaving half her cocktail behind.

Conclusion:  drinking this seasonal ale does not increase one’s sex appeal.

So how was the beer itself?  Well, let me preface my commentary here by saying I don’t consider myself an expert on beer.  Honestly, I bristle at the very idea of a beer expert.  I would hate for beer drinkers to end up sounding like wine aficionados, with all their fancy language.  Unfortunately, this may already be happening. 

Official reviews of the last Ben & Jerry’s-themed beer

Consider the following highlights from the amateur reviews on for last year’s New Belgium Ben & Jerry’s-themed seasonal beer, Salted Caramel Brownie Brown Ale.  (Each bullet is from a different reviewer.) 
  • No idea why this needed salt added
  • I can't pick up on any caramel or certainly not salt
  • There is some overly sweet caramel
  • A little bit of sweetness
  • Mostly sweet
  • Despite the name, this is not sweet
  • I was surprised at the lack of sweetness
  • Smelled fine, but the taste was sweet without much balance
  • Taste about matches the smell
  • [Smell is] a barely-there whiff of metal and vague creaminess. The taste has more going for it—heavy notes of homemade vanilla vodka, macadamia nut, and cocoa butter
  • Light brown, amber hues
  • Clear amber brown
  • Clear reddish brown
  • Chestnut/mahogany brown
  • Translucent brown
  • It's damn near black and almost completely opaque
  • Definitely tastes like a brownie
  • The beer has a strong brownie flavor
  • You could say there is a slight brownie flavor
  • Not really a caramel brownie flavor
  • Honestly, if I didn't know it was supposed to taste like salted caramel brownie ice cream, I would have thought it was just a standard brown ale 
Okay, nobody agrees on whether or not it’s salty; whether or not it’s sweet; whether or not the taste matches the smell; whether or not it tastes like a brownie. And nobody can even agree on the color. What the hell good are these beer people?

Thus emboldened by the state of the art in beer-blathering, here is my experience drinking the new flavor, Ben & Jerry’s-inspired chocolate-chip-cookie-dough ale.

My taste test

I did not start with the beer at 48 degrees, as one reviewer thoughtfully did.  This was an airport bar, remember, where all the beer is near-frigid.  But you know, had I been pouring this at home, I’m not sure what I’d have done.  On the one hand, it’s inspired by an ice cream, so perhaps it should be drunk chilled.  On the other hand, it’s kind of inspired by cookie dough, so maybe it shouldn’t be all that cold.  I would probably need to consult the brewer on this.

I did not pour it into special stemware designed for beers.  I suppose I should have asked for this, at the risk of pissing off the bartender, in order to demonstrate my sophistication to the attractive woman next to me.  But this didn’t occur to me, as I was a bit preoccupied about my upcoming flight.

I also forgot to smell the beer.  This was before I’d started researching this blog post, remember.  And I don’t know a soul who actually makes any special effort to smell his beer.  Nor do the beer drinkers I know swish it around in the glass to check the “legs” (though six reviewers mentioned “lacing,” their descriptions being variously given as “light lacing,” decent amount of lacing,” “web-like lacing,” “spotty lacing,” “no lacing,” and “some lacing”).

All of this said, I have much to report on the flavor.  My first quaff (since I’m unabashedly incapable of sipping beer) set off a major alarm in my brain, as in:


Have you ever raised a glass to your lips thinking you were drinking one thing, but it turned out to be another?  Like, you think it’s water but it ends up being lemonade?  Or you think it’s orange juice but it’s grapefruit?  And for a second you’re totally freaked out, and then your brain figures out what’s going on, and you’re greatly relieved?  Well, I had that experience with this beer, big-time.

Of course I’d expected it to taste a bit like chocolate-chip-cookie-dough ice cream, and also like a beer.  But I was completely unprepared for the actual flavor, which was—get this—not at all that of chocolate chip cookie dough, but of fully baked chocolate chip cookies.

Look, I get it that it’s difficult to match the exact flavor of an ice cream, especially from a specific manufacturer like Ben & Jerry’s.  But New Belgium Brewing Company has a reputation to protect, and there’s no other way to say it:  they really shat the bed with this beer.  Don’t get me wrong, I was able to finish it, and actually by the end—once I’d totally recalibrated my sense of what it could be—I was able to enjoy it on its own terms.  But that initial taste probably caused me to make a really bad face, like when you drink wine that’s turned to vinegar, and that’s probably why that good-looking woman at the bar dissed me so hard.  Maybe New Belgium can fix the recipe, or at least change the label to “Nestle Toll-House Chocolate Chip Cookie” or something.


Look, it’s no fun bagging on an experimental beer, from a socially responsible, solar-powered brewery I happen to like.  And it’s especially bad when they’re doing something good for the environment with their new product.  In a way I feel like this has been an evil review, and that because of my harsh honesty, our oceans may warm up even faster, and many species may die.  But I have a responsibility to the truth here.

Which is a funny thing to say, actually, because so much of this blog post has actually been completely untrue.  Yes, you read that right:  within this essay I have flat-out lied.  That whole thing with the woman at the bar?  Pure fiction.  The fact is, I don’t buy beer at airports because it’s a fricking ripoff.  I also don’t try to get the attention of women, other than my wife (and I know that if I’m looking to win her favor, beer isn’t the way to do it—I’ll build the FLÜNDTRAÄG she brought home from IKEA).  Moreover, the new beer celebrated by Spoon University isn’t even out yet.  If New Belgium has a test market for this beer, I’m not aware of it.

But don’t worry, not everything you’ve just read is a lie.  All those conflicting review snippits were real.  And the bit about the that Spoon article being widely forwarded, and lauded by the CEO as having produced a strong emotional response?  That’s 100% true (though you’ll have to take my word for it).  And my implicit point about these novelty beers being a gimmick (though a harmless one) does smack of some kind of greater truth, doesn’t it, despite my beer tasting having been fictitious?  I mean, when you and I do get around to trying this beer, isn’t it inevitable that we’ll come to this “nice gimmick!” conclusion one way or another?

Why would I lie?

So why would I lie like that?  Look, let’s get down to brass tacks:  with the modern media, and the blogosphere, and this new era of journalism, and Reddit, and all the sharing and re-tweeting and recycling that goes on, there’s really only one measure of success:  how widely read something is.  So I decided I had to go well beyond the “moment” that the Spoon article created.  What’s the first thing you’d google after learning of the existence of a new seasonal beer?  You’d want to know if it’s any good, right?  I suddenly had this opportunity to scoop everyone, just by lying!  So I took it!  And I’m not sorry!  After all, if you’ve made it this far into my post, you must have gotten something out of it.  Maybe you smugly enjoyed the pathetic tale of me (supposedly) striking out at the bar.  Or maybe, like me, you dread the ascent of beer from a basic working man’s beverage to something snooty and epicurean, and appreciate the satire.

And if you’re now smarting from having been led on, maybe feeling a bit foolish at your own gullibility, here’s what to do:  immediately forward this article to all your friends and tell them how great it is.  When they get to this sentence—the one you’re reading right now—they’ll know they’ve been punked—by you—and they’ll go punk their friends, and all this will create a global “moment,” and make me famous!  So go on.  Do it.

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

From the Archives - My First Week as a College Student


I have a kid in high school, which around this parts means I’m in earshot of a never-ending litany of worry, most of it about the near impossibility of getting into a good college (and sometimes about the near impossibility of ever getting a good job).  The latest fear is that even the second-tier, “backup” schools like UCSB are becoming too competitive for all but the very brightest students, blah blah blah.

If all of this is true, a good college is bound to be a pretty dull place by the time my daughters get there.  Nobody will know how to enjoy life, because they’ll have spent their teen years taking six AP classes per semester, studying like fiends, doing extracurriculars like cleaning public latrines “to look good on their applications,” and spending what little spare time they have worrying. 

But then I look back at my own college years and think, nah, students will never change.  When I was a teen my mom assured me that college had been much easier, and less selective, when she was a student, but I can’t imagine it.  There was nothing especially elite about my generation of students; we were your basic run-of-the-mill hedonists.  For some this took the form of partying; for others, sports; and for many, excessive sleeping.  (Yes, when I transferred to Berkeley I encountered a stronger work ethic, but we were still basically hedonists.)  And isn’t that part of the point of college?  To be hedonists for four years while earning an accreditation that will last a lifetime?

To celebrate this, and because I don’t have time to write this week, I’m posting another essay from my archives, chronicling my first week as a UCSB student.

First week of college – September 19, 1988

The line streamed up the block and disappeared into a building.

“You know, like, I’m already starting to miss people at home.  Not like my parents or anything, but you know, the people I’m close to,” said an attractive girl.

A girl with green eyeshadow said, “Like, our living room is nice, but it just isn’t that fun, you know?  Like, it’s kind of boring.”

A short guy in a Top Gun type jacket, sporting aviator sunglasses against the overcast morning glare, looked on, literally too cool to speak.  I stood by, tuning into various conversations taking place around me, trying not to look like Nipper, the RCA dog craning to hear the Victrola.

“You know, I’ve worked hard in school and I think I deserve a nicer car, you know?”

“I hate dorm food.  Let’s get Chinese for lunch.”

“I’m majoring in Psychology.  I don’t know why; maybe I’ll be a psychiatrist.”

Inside the building, I received a number, like at Baskin-Robbins.  I got number 31, and they were helping 37 … so I had 94 students ahead of me, all of us waiting to sign up for phone service.  Once through this line, we had to line up again in front of one or another card table to sign up for a long distance carrier.  Why only one rep from each phone company?  I had no idea which one to choose and a shorter line would have totally carried the day.

I made myself comfortable—as comfortable as you can be just standing there in cheap shoes on a hard floor.  Not far off, a guy was having an enthusiastic conversation with a pretty young thing about absolutely nothing.  God I envied him.  I don’t know a soul in this college town of Isla Vista, unless you count my new roommates, who have somehow talked me into getting the phone bill in my name—something my old friends in San Luis Obispo had expressly warned me not to do.

A girl in a Coors Classic t-shirt said, “You think we should ride our bikes there?  I don’t know, I might fall off.  I haven’t ridden a bike since 6th grade.”

“You know, it was like, right before the prom, and I looked in the mirror and said, ‘Oh my god, I have got to do something.’  So I ran to my hairdresser and said, ‘Just do something, please!’”

“You know, you should just take it easy until you’re all settled in.  Just take a minimum load, 12 units.  You’ll see.  At least, that’s what my counselor says.”

I drifted in and out of oblivion, stirring slightly to witness an MCI representative harassing a Sprint representative for making up facts, which to the best of my knowledge he had been doing.

“It used to be, like, really perm-y.  Now it’s just sort of curly, not curly-curly.”

I envisioned myself on a date with one of these girls.  “Just don’t open your mouth, and we’ll get along fine,” I imagined saying.  Then it dawned on me that the girl might do well to give me the same advice.  I stifled a shudder.  At least, I think I did.  Can you stifle a shudder?  Did anyone see?

By the time it was my turn to get a phone number, I felt as though I knew everybody in the room personally.  I held for each and every one of them the same respect reserved normally for McDonald’s associates and the operator when you dial 411.  I once again became acutely aware that I was at one of the finest learning institutions in the country, in some very sharp company.  I began to feel intimidated.  I was nowhere nearly as outgoing and poised as my fellow students.  What could I talk about?  The dramatic turn of events at the recent road cycling World Championships?  The fact that I live in La Loma, the lowest-rent building in I.V., a place so cheap that I’m among the only students there, the rest being factory workers who—based on how early in the morning I hear them revving their engines in the parking lot outside my window—must commute a great distance?

Lacking my own car cut my conversational topics in half, so considered describing some of the interesting rental cars I drove this past summer, or the ’52 Ford pickup I drove while working at a clothing factory.  As I left the building, my phone number receipt clutched firmly in my hand, I resolved to brush up on my social skills.  My worldly roommate speaks fondly of his success with the ladies, which he attributes to lying about his age.  Perhaps I shall consider this technique.

So began my first week in I.V.  When my mom and the landlord (that is, her husband, not my real landlord) came to see me off, I gave them the full tour of my quaint little apartment.  Imagine my shame when my own mom accused my happy home of being “a pit.”  Surely the thin layer of protective scum left by the previous tenants would wash right off, and the black widow hanging from the ceiling could be considered a pet.  I admit that I was initially slightly dismayed by the poor condition of the apartment, but that was before the landlord (the real one, my landlord) assured me that the previous tenants had lost their entire damage deposit.

The place did come equipped with quick-release window screens, as well as a somewhat stocked kitchen.  The refrigerator is sporting some well-aged pickles, and some organic-looking sprouts I have yet to identify.  Dried seaweed and brown rice, along with over ten varieties of ramen, comprise only a fraction of the delicacies lining the cabinets.  And the aspirin!  This place is replete!  Every cabinet in the house has its own jar, so I’ll never have to walk more than ten feet for aspirin again.  I feel baffled by my mom’s apprehensions.  I’m very excited about my new home and I can’t wait to meet all the neighbors, especially the children, who seem so energetic and vocal.  I’m sure their parent will have great stories to tell.  And I’m looking forward to chatting up the maintenance woman to find out how our apartment complex got its very own golf cart.

And yet, ever since I got here I felt that something was missing from the college life I’d expected.  I just felt kind of empty inside.  And then, on the third day, it hit me:  classes!  That’s right, a college institution as old and venerable as overpriced textbooks and frequent intoxication.  For some reason, UCSB decided to start classes on a Thursday.  Perhaps this was to give new students a chance to hit their stride, and balance all these new responsibilities:  freedom, housekeeping, hangovers, and operating the local Automated Teller Machines, which in many cases differ from what students used in their hometowns.  (Fortunately, these students will have plenty of opportunities to practice with these ATMs, and believe me, they will.)

I showed up for my first-ever college class five minutes ahead of time like a good boy, and immediately panicked because nobody else seemed to be around.  I automatically assumed that the temporary, unofficial schedule I was using (after losing my final, official schedule) was incorrect, and my college career would begin with a humiliating screw-up.  But to my surprise, the Teacher’s Aide (or whatever TA stands for, if anything) arrived with about ten seconds to spare, headed to the front of the room, sat down, and proceeded to stare blankly into space, seemingly on the brink of delirium.  The six other students who had arrived sat patiently in their seats, being careful not to slouch, and behaving perfectly, perhaps for the last time in their lives.  Looking at the TA, all I could think was, “She looks like she could use a cup of coffee.”  As if on cue she said, “I need coffee,” and left the room.  She returned a moment later sipping coffee from a Styrofoam cup.  Did I mention this was my Environmental Studies TA?

She had prepared well for this first class.  She delivered her lecture with the poise and polish that indicate she’s given it many times before:  “Well, it looks like almost nobody is here, so there’s no point in going into anything.  But I want to say this is a great class, and I’m sure that’s why it’s so full this quarter.  I think.”

French class didn’t go so well.  I’d tested into French 4 but wasn’t nearly up to the level of the others, and right after class the professor demoted me to French 3.  I won’t miss her.  I will, however, miss this really cute girl with a hairdo like a tumbleweed.

On the way biking home I was accosted by a gentleman who came running out into the road holding out a piece of paper.  Instinctively I grabbed it, and it turned out to be a flyer.  It seemed a local chapter of a Greek leadership society was putting on a free event designed to broaden students’ social horizons.  The event was described in a touching free-verse poem:  “It’s not that far/ And they’ve got open bar/ You won’t have to drive a car/ To go see the party czar/ The liquor king/ The master of malice/ The hero of hedonism/ It’s EVIL EDDIE!/ At the original house of fun.”  Ah, the Delta House at 6515 Pardall, a building almost as elegant as La Loma.  Apparently, the fraternity would be hosting this event as a display of its benevolent leadership in the community.  After reading a list of the activities and hospitality planned (“beverages, snacks, sex, drugs, and rock & roll”), I was disappointed at having to miss it.  Laundry Night with my roommates had already been planned and I wasn’t going to let the guys down.

Well, I should wrap up this report.  I’m about to acquaint myself with the final puzzle piece of my college experience:  studying!  This is another collegiate tradition I’m hoping to keep alive, if only in my own tiny realm.  Wish me luck!

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