Monday, August 30, 2004

On Lard

Wives abhor a vacuum. We have a pantry under our stairs. If there was an earthquake or volcano or asteroid impact and have to rely on ourselves, we will be eating granola bars, pasta, and several varieties of beans until civilization emerges from the chaos. And we aren't even Mormon or ultra-survivalist! Along the same lines, we have a chest freezer that until recently was only half full - it had stuff like dried fruit, homemade stock, vegetables, pizzas etc. So we are really good to go as long as the civilization ending disaster is confined to be not-so-civilization ending so that we still have electricity, seeing as we don't have a generator...

But the vacuum abhoring tendencies have finally conquered the empty space in the freezer. We are now the proud owners of half a pig and a quarter of a cow! Or at least a pig and cow metamorphized into convenient one pound packages. Along with the edible meat, we also got the bones and fat so that we can make stock, sausages and ... LARD!

In learning about how to make (or "render") lard, I've learned that it has gotten a bad rap through the years. Not that it is exactly healthy, but it has less bad saturated fats than butter and it doesn't have the icky trans fats that hydrogenated stuff like Crisco and margarine have. But it great for pastries such as pies and biscuits, meat pie crusts, and flavoring for soups, eggs, refried beans and tamales. Supposedly it is *the thing* to use for flaky pie crusts and biscuits like Grandma used to make. Not that I ever had a pie made by Grandma. Being the late child of late children, lets just say the memories of my grandparents do not include them having the mobility to make pies...

So last Saturday I cut up three pounds of pork fat and melted it in a Dutch oven for 5 hours. It didn't smell bad, more like I was making pork chops around the clock. What was left was what they call "cracklin's" which are essentially pork rinds and a clear liquid which when cooled is the lard. Now some sources say the cracklin's are good eatin'. To me they looked like good throwin' away...

After the lard cooled overnight I was left with a greasy Crisco like substance - but totally organic and homemade! So I decided to make my wife's favorite breakfast food - biscuits and sausage gravy. Maybe it wasn't such a good idea to use Julia Child for biscuits, because the dough I ended up with wasn't exactly "dough" but more like "oatmeal". Kneading oatmeal is a bit like herding cats - you can expend a lot of energy, but it isn't exactly clear you are getting close to your goal. I guess I needed a lot more flour. So after yelling for my wife to throw flour on my hands encrusted with proto dough and trying to salvage the mess, I ended up with something a lot more overworked than the "lightly tossed" dough that Julia surmised I would have. But the gravy turned out great at least, and the biscuits weren't exactly fluffy - but were very tasty.

So now since we have two Italian plum trees in the backyard that didn't quite get the message that it didn't rain this summer, I have a lot of plum pie to make. From the amount of plums the trees are producing, my conservative estimate for the number of pies is 278. I think I might run out of lard before running out of plums.

Also, my wife has been making runs to Central Washington for sand (don't ask) and coming back with boxes of pears and apples to dehydrate. Not to mention the gallons of blackberries, blueberries and raspberries that she picked and froze this summer and just about made it impossible to fit the meat into the freezer. So what I'm saying is that I will be making plum pies, apple pies, pear pies, blackberry pies, blueberry pies and raspberry pies. With yummy flaky lard crusts.

Anyone want a pie?

Thursday, August 19, 2004

The Perfect Sport

I was up at my father-in-law's beach house last weekend and got my quarterly TV watching in. He has a plasma screen-DVD 7.1 home theater thing going on in a dedicated no-window room with in-the-wall speakers. I didn't have the heart to tell him that the picture quality was on the 50's technicolor side of color reproduction. But with him, it never, ever, is about the quality of the thing - it is always about 1) Is it expensive? 2) Will people know it is expensive?. Hence the upcoming Hummer purchase. He has absolutely no reason on this Earth for one - the last time he left the road was probably in the Ford administration. However, on the scale of conspicuous consumption it is off the Veblen-o-meter, and that is all that matters. Besides, he owns a gas station where he can devote a spare underground tank for its fuel.

Now to get back to what this post was going to be about. I also saw some of the Olympics while I was there. I believe the last time I watched any of the Olympics was in 1996 (one of the reasons being that I had a date once with one of the women's marathon competitors, who sadly could not finish, the marathon that is, not the date...). However, I swore I would never sit through that crap again. The overwrought, Hallmark stories with John Tesh "music"...the endless commercials...the commentators commentating endlessly on things that only need to be said once...the switching between sports every two minutes...the emphasis on the Americans...showing only the last 10 seconds of ANYTHING, at the exclusion of the drama of the whole...the emphasis on closeup shots to the exclusion of say, what the hell is happening...

Phew. Well, what I saw last weekend was refreshing. I saw a whole first round volleyball match and the final of womens synchronized diving (WHICH HAD NO AMERICANS IN IT!!!!! NO AMERICANS!!! THEY SHOWED A SPORT THAT HAD NONE, NADA, ZILCH, EL BIGGO ZERO, NAUGHT AND NULL AMERICANS!!!). There were no stories of the type 'She wakes up everyday at 2am to feed her quadriplegic brother who had dreams of Olympic medals but were cruelly dashed by the 7-11 Slurpee disaster. After she feeds, bathes and clothes her brother, she gets in her 4 hour morning workout before her part-time job at the mall. While everyone lunches at the food-court she eats her healthy diet of fruits, vegetables and copious amounts of deer liver which keeps her aim focussed...'). There were no cutaways to other sports (featuring AMERICANS!), there were no "keep tuned" plugs that lasted for half of the regular broadcast. In other words, they just showed the competition. It was revolutionary in its simplicity. The sheer audacity of it is probably why it had not been tried before. The resources that must have been gathered to keep away the mawkmerchants, promo purveyors and twitchy network control room producers must have been enormous. The expense that it must have taken could only be taken by a network such as NBC. The contingent to keep Bob Costas away from the microphone and camera must have been of Special Forces quality. There has to be a special medal cast for that spec-op - ("Oh that? I got that for securing the broadcast premises from Bob Costas, I can't go into the details, but let's just say that it involved a team of Brooklyn Dodger lookalikes and a gymnast with a broken ankle along with state-of-the-art satellite surveillance. Did you know that Bob Costas's nose and haircut have a unique silhouette in satellite photos?").

So it got me to thinking. Now that they have some of the kinks worked out so that I could actually watch the Olympics, what sports would I watch? I have my own criteria of what is watch-worthy. It has to be sport that doesn't require that you be a genetic outlier in your body type, sorry Yao Ming. Also, it can't be a sport where you can take performance enhancing drugs, sorry Weightlifting, most of track, bicycling and swimming. It can't be a sport that requires very esoteric equipment or animals, like archery and equestrian. It can't be a sport that requires judging because of the corruption and politics that go on. I am searching for the pure sport that I can wholeheartedly follow, where your results are only dependent on how hard you've worked and how well you perform, without a dependence on weird genetics, drugs, equipment or politics.

In my geekly fashion, I decided to fashion a spreadsheet where I score all the Olympic events in these four areas and then let the winner emerge from the results. I decided to make a 5 point scale where the sport is judged on its genetic outlier (i.e. could a normal person of normal weight and height compete and win) requirements, drug enhancement potential, equipment requirements, and how much competition is influenced by judges. No sport had a perfect score, but six only missed out in one category. The absolute worst was cycling, which had worst scores on performance enhancement via drugs and equipment. I don't want to watch sports where how much you spend on your equipment directly influences how well you do. I'm too lazy to convert the MS Excel spreadsheet into real HTML (you know, MS just couldn't make it easy to do straight vanilla HTML Tables from their spreadsheets could they...how hard could it be? Instead when you do an export to HTML you get this Frankenstein mess that makes you want to drive a stake through its monstrous "heart", to mix monster metaphors).

So the six winners are: The Marathon, Race-Walking, Badminton, Handball, Field Hockey and Table Tennis. Of all of these, I think Handball will be my favorite. Though Badminton is a sentimental favorite of countless backyard and picnic games. Where is Olympic Jarts?

The only sport that I can think of that would score perfect is Ultimate Frisbee, normal people that would get no help from performance drugs with minimal equipment and absolutely no judging. Even the team sports in my top six have some referee judgement calls. But Ultimate eschews referees. Ultimate even was a demonstration sport in one of the last two Olympics. But until it is in as a real sport, I will be a Handball watcher.

Monday, August 09, 2004

Running on Empty

I won't say I'm depressed - but that I am dissatisfied with yesterday. I've been getting into shape after 20 years of off and on physical activity. Usually in those years of the waistland I would run for about a month or two, get hurt or sick or busy, and then do nothing for 6 months to a year and then start the cycle over. So after my last injury over a year ago, I decided to get a bicycle and start commuting to work on it. This has finally worked - I lost about 10 pounds and I am much stronger and fitter. But I really like running and if I don't run two days in a row and pay a lot of attention to how my knee is feeling (patella femular syndrome) then it is doable.

The problem is that my body has remembered that I once ran a mile in 4 minutes and 10 seconds (well, the 1500 meter equivalent...). What the body fails to take into account is that was 20 years and 20 pounds ago. So it has been difficult teaching my body and mind to accept what it can do now and especially on only 3 days of running a week. I've been running 5K races this summer in May, June and yesterday. My feeble goal was to break 20 minutes (about a 6:30 per mile pace). I used to run 10 miles at this pace and not even breathe too hard...sigh. My first race (in a kilt no less) I had no idea what I could do and ran conservatively in 22:09. The next one was in 21:30 and I was hopeful that I could get my goal this summer.

I was training from workouts designed to give me a good basis to run at the pace needed to do it. In fact, the week before I ran a treadmill 2 mile at 6:00 per mile pace and it wasn't really hard. Granted, I knew that treadmill pace is a far different thing than running outside, but I thought it was a good sign. I was psyched to run in Redmond yesterday and get my goal.

Except that in the first four minutes I was breathing way too hard and my legs and form did not feel good at all. I knew that I could not keep this up for the whole way - or else I convinced myself I could not. I hit the first mile in 6:00 even and fell apart the second mile, running it in 6:55. Still, I could have hit my goal if I had the psychological gumption to pick it up. Nope, people were passing me and I felt horrible.

But I knew I could sprint it in on the final straightaway. Except I misjudged it. And died. And one would hope that the person who passes you right at the finish line would be a fine specimen - a tall, lithe, young man with bounding athletic strides. I would be remiss if I didn't tell you that the person who did pass me could be described by the antonym of every one of those descriptions. Let's just say that it is more than a bit deflating and humbling for someone who has run as fast as I have to be beaten by one of Marge Simpson's sisters...

Granted, I did run faster than my other races - but this one was my most disheartening of them all.