Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Jeopardy! Test Almost-Live Blog

I finally decided that I'd had enough - no more swearing at the TV when people get easy questions wrong, I was going to step up to the plate and take the Jeopardy! test. I like trivia, I adore pub quizzes, I seem to be pretty good at Jeopardy! questions when I'm sitting at home on my sofa (which is clearly a good measure of how I would do on television in front of a live audience), so what the hell, why not give it a shot?

I don't know exactly why, but taking the Jeopardy! test is close to the nerdiest thing I've done in a long time, and I was reluctant to tell anyone I was doing it ahead of time. (I say close to the nerdiest thing, because I'm not sure if following Brent Spiner on Twitter is nerdier or not). So, seeing as I was mortally embarrassed by the whole endeavor, it naturally occurred to me to make it entirely public on my blog where I could be exposed to public scrutiny and ridicule. Naturally. I even played around with live blogging software, and then I realized that for live blogging to actually be meaningful in any way, people would have to be watching, you know, live. Hmmm, that might be a problem, since I told, oh, two people that I was taking this test tonight and only thought about live blogging it this morning. The other problem is that live blogging only works for events that are exciting, whereas this would be as exciting as live blogging a shave and a haircut. So I'm doing almost-live blogging, that will suffice.

Well fed from some excellent Vietnamese food from my new favorite spot Dragon Rouge, and surrounded by all of the necessities (root beer, bottle of secret nostrum, Ralph Wiggum, handful of kumquats), I was ready to roll.

Hurry up, Alex, I'm ready and full of fish sauce

I logged in just after 7:30, excited and nervous to start the test. Of course I was stupidly early and had to wait 28 minutes and 51 seconds for the test to begin. Luckily I got to stare at the delightfully Perry-Ellis-clad Alex Trebeck while I waited.

I finished my root beer 23 minutes and 11 seconds before the test started.

Just before the test started, the Final Jeopardy song started playing, indicating that it was time to get ready. And then the first question popped up immediately and holy shit, slow down, slow down, you're going too fast, what the hell did that say oh damn that guy was Finnish not Indian why did I think he was Indian?, how the hell do you spell the name of the character from Les Miserables?, gaaaaah!

Thank you for taking the freaky fast panic-attack-inducing Jeopardy! test

50 frantic questions later, which took about 12 minutes, and now I'm done sitting here panting and feeling mildly freaked out. And blogging. Somehow I remembered that Walt Whitman wrote "Oh Captain, My Captain", I stupidly put Alexander Graham Bell and knew that I should have put Samuel Morse the second I hit enter, I confused the Punic Wars with the Peloponesian Wars, I think I got a question about Desperate Housewives right (all I remember is that it said something about a woman cheating with a pool boy). I guessed correctly that the Fermi Award was given out by the U.S. Department of Energy, and I knew that atomic number of an element was the number of protons in the nucleus, but I had no idea who was the "successor to Moses" (better dust off that Old Testament, Andy). I passed on two questions, one was a Before & After that included a late fashion designer and an immigration station, and, damn it I just figured it out right as I'm typing this - Perry Ellis Island. Crappity crap crap. Everything else is a blur. Oh yeah, and there was something about Nicole Kidman and possibly Enrique Iglesias.

Well that was exciting - probably more for me than for anyone reading this. How did I do? I think I did okay, not amazing - but if you read the fine print in the picture above, it sounds like the process of picking is mostly random after this point anyway. If I get on TV, be sure to wave.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Raisin Hell: The Results

Do people like raisins? Yes, some do. Others vehemently hate them in nearly every use. Still others love them in one food but can't stand them in another. However, after tallying the results of last month's survey, the general opinion seems to be one of ambivalence. On a 1–5 scale, with 5 being the highest opinion of raisins (i.e., "I want to marry them" in the original survey), the average rating was 3.44; they may be flirting, but I don't think the public is quite ready to run off to Vegas with raisins.

Average ratings in different foods (data point falls under each blue bow tie). Overall raisin rating from Question 1 indicated by the dashed line.

The ratings for specific uses of raisins tell a slightly different story. The highest average rating went to Oatmeal/Hot Cereal (3.75), probably the most common way many people think to use raisins. Interestingly, this was the only use to score above the average overall opinion of raisins, while most others clustered right around 3. Raisins in ice cream are clearly not popular (1.88), which isn't entirely surprising given that rum-raisin (the most common use of raisins in ice cream as far as I know) seems to be loved by a handful of people but reviled by most others, like salty liquorice, Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray soda, or Smash Mouth.

The question "Are there any dishes in which you particularly hate/love raisins" generated some interesting comments and pointed out some glaring omissions from my list of common places to find raisins (e.g. cold cereal and trail mix - how did I forget those?). Here are some of the best comments:
  • I hate raisins in and on everything!!!!
  • that rice pudding stuff in indian restaurants.
  • Why spoil an oatmeal cookie with raisins?
  • I hate raisins in all cakes and ice creams. Otherwise I love them.
  • Raisins just kind of appear in my life and I think "oh, that's pretty good" and then I ingest them.
  • Raisinbread is super extra tasty
  • I hate raisins in Power/Nutrition/Breakfast Bars. But then, I hate Those Bars period so I guess that doesn't count.
As much as I love raisins, I will admit that there are some negatives. I hate the sticky fingers you get from eating them, and I can't stand when I get jabbed by a little grape stem that got left on the fruit. Others agreed, but the most popular choice (clearly overwhelmed by American respondents) was "People that hand them out on Halloween like it's a replacement for candy." Old wounds clearly take time to heal (either that or we have a lot of 8 year-olds reading our blog these days). "The flavor baked" just edged out "The flavor raw" as the best thing about raisins.

I had two predictions regarding prunes: (1) people would rate them lower than raisins overall, and (2) the people that disliked prunes probably haven't had them for quite a while. Both of these predictions turned out to be true (at least in a hand-waving pseudo-statistical sort of way for the latter). The average rating of prunes was 2.875 compared to 3.44 for raisins — not a surprise given the prevalent low opinion of prunes, but we didn't delve into the reasons behind this. The time since last prune relationship to prune opinion came out about how I imagined it would break down:

Time since last pruneAverage Rating
Within the last few weeks4.6
Within the last year3.1
1-many years1.5

This seems to confirm my theory that people that think that they don't like prunes simply haven't had them for a while and their opinion is colored by distance and misinformation. It's also possible that people haven't eaten prunes in years because they honestly don't like them, but prunes are so objectively tasty that I'll just discard this possibility. I think a lot of people haven't had prunes in years mostly because (a) their parents forced them to eat them because they were healthier than candy and they have been scarred ever since, (b) because they're perceived as "old people" food, (c) they think prunes are a strong laxative (they're not - they just have fiber in them like most fruits), or (d) they think prunes taste "brown" and leathery. If you fit any of those categories, do me a favor and go buy a small thing of prunes and report back.

When I asked respondents to define "sultana", almost everyone got the correct answer (a dried seedless white grape), although several threw me a bone and voted for "A largely underappreciated Belarusian funk band" (thanks for that). Most also got that "greengage" is a greenish plum cultivar, but again I was tossed a few freebies by the people that responded "Danger Mouse's arch-enemy". Thank you all for indulging me – I know I can count on you.

Sultana's hit single "Мы фанки жеребцов"

Baron Silas Greeenback, not a small green plum

I also wanted to know if people had ever eaten hot or baked fresh grapes. This is clearly a leading question, and obviously I like them and think others should too. I had never thought of such a thing until eating them at César in Berkeley where they will occasionally serve them oven roasted on the vine drizzled with sherry vinegar. It may sound strange, but they're amazingly tasty with a bit of meat and cheese and dead easy to make at home (the recipe is in the César cookbook, but essentially it involves a bunch of red flame grapes put on parchment paper on a cookie sheet, drizzled with sherry or balsamic vinegar, and baked in the oven until they start to brown). Of course, this is just another of the myriad uses of the fabulous grape; don't get me started about chicken tagine with baked prunes...

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Praise Cheeses

So I'm stuck at home today recovering from a really unpleasant case of food poisoning — not exactly what I planned for today, but at least I get to watch bad daytime TV (right now the ShamWow! commercial is on, and Tyra Banks is putting people in the "Gay Truth Booth" - awesome), stare at our new fish bobbing around our aquarium, and write a blog post. And what better to write about when you have food poisoning? Let's talk food.

This past week I got my first delivery from the iGourmet International Cheese of The Month Club, Maggie's most awesome (and most fattening) Christmas present. Each month you get three half-pound pieces of cheese with a particular theme that isn't revealed until it arrives. I eagerly opened the box of cheese and tried to guess the theme before reading the Cheese of the Month newsletter — the box included an aged gouda, a Bavarian blue, and an Italian pecorino, and I couldn't come up with a theme. A north-south sampling through Europe?

The array of cheeses in the first month

No, the theme was "A trio of milks: cow, sheep, and goat"; a great concept, except astute cheese fans may have noticed that there are two cow's milk cheeses (Gouda, blue) and one sheep's milk (Pecorino). Oops - goat fail. So it turns out my north-south theme was actually more accurate, but with three awesome cheeses, I'm not about to complain.
ReNero Pecorino Stagianato (Sheep)

Beemster Master's Choice Gouda (Cow)

Paladin Regina Blu (Cow)

Despite the lack of goat cheese, I have no complaints about the cheese selection: all were new to me, none of them were silly flavored cheeses (you know, mango Stilton, strawberry brie, and their ilk), and all were delicious. The Regina Blu was by far my favorite, super creamy (thanks to a 65% fat content) with a very mild blue flavor. I'm not normally a big fan of goudas, but the Beemster Master's Choice was a close second to the blue: really nutty and lacked the cloying sweetness that goudas often have. A few years ago Maggie and I had a fabulous late night snack of wine and hard cheeses at 'Ino in New York, and ever since I've been a fan of eating the super hard cheeses like pecorinos and parmesans, not just grating them over pastas. The ReNero Stagionato didn't disappoint, although I can't say that it was significantly different from your basic Pecorino Romano (probably side-by-side you could tell).

The first month was a success, and I can't wait to see what arrives next - hopefully no mango Stilton.

By the way, you know what goes well with cheese? Dried fruits, like raisins and prunes. Agree or disagree? This is the last chance to chime in on the Raisin Survey before I summarize the results next week.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

A Fond Farewell to Jojo

New Year's Eve tends to be a festive celebratory night for most people — Maggie and I usually celebrate by staying home, watching movies, and falling asleep on the couch minutes before midnight. Par-tay! This year was a bit different as we had to attend a going away party of sorts. Shortly after we moved back to the Bay Area we discovered that one of our very favorite restaurants, Jojo in Oakland, was closing at the end of the year. The restaurant industry has been hit hard by the recession and many restaurants, especially high-end ones, are having tough times getting diners through the door, and when diners do come in, they're ordering more modestly. The San Francisco Chronicle recently ran an article on the effect of the economy on local restaurants featuring Jojo, Michael Mina, and other local eateries hard hit by the economy. The San Francisco Bay Area is such a food-centric place, one might think that restaurants here would fare better, but, perhaps exacerbated by the high density of restaurants in the area, supply is simply outstretching the current demand.

Jojo was a very special place for us, and the owners Curt and Mary Jo and the staff have become friends with us over the years, so it was especially hard to see it go and we had to go toast them farewell on their final night. One of our very first dates was at Jojo — it was my birthday and Maggie wanted to take me somewhere nice, so I suggested Jojo. We had a fabulous dinner (including a complimentary plate of their delicious homemade pâté de campagne), and we've been going there regularly ever since, and we even held our pre-wedding dinner there for our families.

The open kitchen at Jojo

If you never got the chance to go to Jojo, it's worth describing it briefly to get a sense of the space and the style. Jojo was in a skinny, long storefront next to the Oakland culinary classic BayWolf. While the food was French, the restaurant design and decor was firmly rooted in California, with nods to the many notable restaurants where Mary Jo and Curt had worked and trained, including the legendary Chez Panisse where Mary Jo spent 12 years as a pastry chef, and Oliveto and Zuni Cafe where Curt spent many years. The centerpiece of the restaurant was the open kitchen that occupied a good portion of the already limited floor space. I always loved how the kitchen was right in the middle of things and every patron could see exactly what was going on at any moment — for a chef, this is like a high-wire act: you can't lose your temper, everything must be spotless and impeccably organized, and in the middle of all of the varied demands of cooking, you have to occasionally engage with the audience.

We would always make a point of going to say hi, thanking them for the amazing food (which it always was), and chatting briefly about food or skiing or whatever else was going on. I would feel a bit guilty for dragging them away from their work which is so dependent on precision and perfect timing, but they were always glad to chat and would duck away the second a flat-iron steak needed turning on the grill or a plum galette was ready to emerge from the oven.

Mary Jo hard at work in the kitchen

Mary Jo's baking is simply unmatched: the chocolate souffle cake should go down as one of the culinary wonders of the Western world, both lighter than air and rich and dense at the same time, and her custards always achieved the perfect consistency (plus, how can you beat an orange-anise-vanilla custard?). Back in 2000, the San Francisco Chronicle ran an article on Mary Jo and the use of fruit in her baking and included her fruit galette recipe. She learned the recipe for the crust from the legendary Jacques Pépin when he was a guest chef for a week at Chez Panisse, now I've learned it from her (via the newspaper) and I've been using this recipe ever since, and it never fails to look impressive and taste incredible. Whatever they do next, I hope the world (but especially me) will get to continue enjoying her amazing baking.

Curt's cassoulet

Gourmet got it right when they said that Curt's steak frites nearly steals the show - it was so consistently perfect that it was hard not to order this every time. On the final night, Curt made an elaborate cassoulet that included two types of homemade sausage, duck confit, ham, and several large doses of magic fairy dust (or some other ingredient that made it ridiculously delicious). It may not be the most photogenic of foods, but a good cassoulet is hard to beat, especially on a cold winter night.

Maggie and Mary Jo

It's sad to see a place we love go away, particularly under the circumstances and knowing just how much hard work Mary Jo and Curt poured into the place over the years. We are, of course, anxious to see what they go on to do next - but hopefully it'll be after a well deserved rest!

Farewell Jojo!

Andy & Maggie