Category Personal

Modernist Dinner, a post-mortem

Last night, I made dinner for a group of friends, in lieu of my usual July party celebrating moving to the island.  The change in format was stimulated, primarily, by the publication of Nathan Myhrvold’s magnum opus, Modernist Cuisine.  I was an enthusiastic early adopter, preordering the book last winter, and Myhrvold and his team really delivered.  It’s a rich vein of modern culinary knowledge — the Escoffier of the early 21st century, without a doubt.  My friend (and superb chef) Madden Surbaugh described it as “a post-graduate degree” in the culinary arts, and he’s right.

My goal in planning this dinner was really to try techniques.  I had no preconceived notions about what I’d make, but I started making lists of recipes about two months ago, after Nicole and I went to Napa and did Three Nights of Keller, and later when Scott, Nicole, and I made the pilgrimage to Chicago for Alinea and Aviary.  My method in planning the dinner was suitably nerdy on several fronts:  I treated it like a research project, and had a lab notebook, and being a software guy, the lab notebook was in the form of a wiki.  I kept notes on recipes, techniques, ingredients, possible menus, and so on.  It was fun to see how things evolved.

I tried a number of dishes that never saw the light of day.  I was taken with a “shrimp terrine” dish by Ideas in Food, but since several guests were allergic to shrimp, I turned it into lobster.  But I was also taken with Chang’s ramen from Momofuku, and ended up trying to make lobster meat “noodles” by tossing lobster tail chunks with Old Bay and Activa RM, vacuum sealing, and rolling it into a flat sheet.  After an overnight chill, I cooked the sheets at 55C and chilled, before cutting into fettucine.  This worked fairly well, although the noodles were definitely fragile (I didn’t want to use enough Activa to ruin the flavor or texture).  The noodles, served in an english pea dashi (kombu, shittake, english pea pods, bonito flakes), absolutely sucked.  They had the texture and feel of bad imitation crab.  The moral of the story is don’t do this!.

I won’t bore everyone with the full list of failures, partial successes, or things that “worked” in a technical sense but simply yielded nothing terribly interesting.  I will say, do not bother coring out and stuffing asparagus spears.  It’s not worth it.  Unless you have asparagus with a serious obesity problem, you can’t get enough tasty stuffing inside before they split and explode for anybody to really notice.  It’s an interesting idea, and if it had worked out would have elicited that “wow, cool” surprise noise that every chef is hoping to hear from their diners….but it didn’t.

What works:  tapioca maltodextrin.  Make dry caramel.  Now.  Make parmesan nuggets, or bacon powder, or….hell, grab a tasty dairy or fat and spin it with TM and serve it in some interesting way.  I happened to have a sheet of apple cider sea-salt caramel that had gone all brittle because I’d prepped it too far in advance, so I needed a new presentation than what I’d originally planned, and I remembered that Grant Achatz had done a “dry caramel” powder, and it worked.  Boy, did it work.  It wasn’t what I’d planned, but it was a happy accident, and something I’ll be doing again, especially early in a meal with savory and smoky elements, like the dehydrated double-smoked (house-cured) bacon I paired it with.  Get some TM and start screwing around.  Seriously.

Also:  low-acyl gellan.  After some futzing with other gelification agents, I was wary.  I clearly need more practice with methocels, for example, before I’m ready to unleash something on unsuspecting diners.  But low-acyl gellan:  brilliant.  Sherry vinegar gel cubes to serve with oysters were a breeze.  Measure carefully but then, it just works.  It exhibits a first-order phase transition when the liquid cools below the magic temperature — one second it’s a liquid, the next, it’s a semi-brittle gel, boom.  Stable and still tasty after storage in the fridge, it’s forgiving and completely within reach of cooking at home.  Highly recommended.

What I hated:  working with transglutaminase.  I did the “Checkerboard Sushi” from Myhrvold.  Twice.  The first time, I destroyed way too much nice maguro and hamachi from Mutual Fish when the “slurry” got gloopy (which it does in about ten seconds), and I ended up with blobs between the fish slabs.  You have to work fast with Activa.  What they don’t tell you, is that “fast” means “superhumanly fast.”  The second time, I dusted the slabs through a tea strainer.  It didn’t bond nearly as well and the resulting slabs were fragile, but they looked great and tasted great, and that’s what counts.  It just limited me on presentation possibilites, where a full bond would have been more robust for draping or whatever.  But I hated working with the Activa.  I have a full bag of it, and will probably do it again, but it’s certainly not something I’ll whip out for my own pleasure and use in the kitchen.  Too much hassle and fuss.

Silica gel packets and a food dehydrator — wonderful tools.  A food dehydrator that isn’t circular and takes a rectangular tray would be even better. I sense one in my future.

And if you don’t have an iSi cream whipper, stop reading now and go to Amazon and buy one.  I used this dozens of times in the course of a couple of days, it’s perhaps the handiest tool I have for doing modernist dishes.

I’ll probably have more notes in the days to come, especially as I review my lab notes.  But get in the kitchen and play around!

A belated Towel Day perspective

This year, on Towel Day, I was busy, putting together a fundraising dinner for the UW Anthropology Department and the UW Student Farm.  So I didn’t really write anything, as I have in years past.  But not for lack of something to say.  I’m not sure what it is, exactly, about “Towel Day,” the semi-bogus holiday celebrated by fans of Douglas Adams each year, but it seems to bring out the “long view” in me, visions of civilizations rising and falling.  You’d think such thoughts would be triggered by someone more profound…by a rereading of Edward Gibbon or at least Barbara Tuchman, or even Carl Sagan reflecting on the immensity in which our parochial concerns are lost.

Nope.  Douglas Adams does it every time.  It’s the Golgafrinchans, at the end of Restaurant At the End of the Universe.

Because, of course, they’re us.  They’re our bumbling, over-specialized, incapable of making a living for themselves, useless skills aplenty, useful skills thin on the ground, selves.

And, as an archaeologist and social scientist, the Golgafrinchans always remind me of how fragile our civilization is.  I am a social scientist, and I read a good bit of contemporary social science, of course, but in my work I analyze phenomena at a much longer time scale.  I study societies and social groups as they come and go, are born by fission from some other group of people, flourish, perhaps give rise to social “offspring,” and eventually go extinct.  And what is more emblematic of social extinction than Adams’s portrayal of the Golgafrinchan Ark “B”, carrying the non-essential members of society off to form a new world….

The Golgafrinchans occupy a place in my personal “wax museum of humanity” right next to Danny Hillis’s Long Now Foundation, and their 10,000 year clock.  Although the 24 hour news cycle and the buzz of tweets and instant information would have you believe otherwise, it is over much longer time scales that we can evaluate the success, and equitability, and sustainability of the various ways we humans have, of being human.  Our battles might be fought in days or years or lifetimes, but it is only our descendants that can truly “keep score” and decide how well we did.

The Long Now clock is designed to transcend us as a civilization, and as one of the ways we can communicate some of what we’ve learned with our far-future descendants.  It is designed not to require folks to be close enough to us in time and culture that they can read our writings, or comprehend our ideas, but to draw upon principles that are presumably deeper — not necessarily built into the laws of physics, mind you — but comprehensible to beings who are descended from our kind of minds, our kind of bodies.

Combine the perspective of an anthropologist studying the slow coming and going of societies, and the perspective of a software and systems engineer, and I think you get a sub-genre of futurism and speculation:  what it takes to “recover” the good bits of a civilization, after a collapse or other disaster.  Or simply the slow erosion of deep time.

I think of this problem in algorithmic terms.  If you wanted to maximize the chances of being able to recreate us, down the road after we’ve lost our knowledge, lost this particular set of scientific/democratic values, what is the “minimal instruction set”?

In short, what is the “boot loader” for an open, democratic society  combining expressive freedom and respect for scientific discovery?

This is the closest I can come up with, and I do not claim that it’s a deterministic algorithm.  In other words, starting here, you are not guaranteed to replicate the aspects of our civilization we value.  It’s clearly stochastic, and there’s clearly a lot of noise.  Which means only that I’m giving an “initial condition” and transition probabilities for processes which are in the “basin of attraction” of the product we’re looking for, and that if you follow such rules, “more often than not,” you’d end up with something we’d recognize as an open society.  Assuming you either replicate the experiment a lot (i.e., send LOTS of Golgafrinchans to LOTS of uninhabited worlds), or wait for the experiment to repeat itself over and over (i.e., deep time).

But here’s the algorithm (and I don’t claim full originality here):

  1. Pay attention and observe patterns in the world around you, keeping an open mind.
  2. Bang the rocks together, so to speak, and make things.  Especially new things.
  3. Understand how competition and cooperation work, and why each is necessary.
  4. Study those who are different, with an open mind.
  5. Pass on what you learn, without too much prejudice.

Put this algorithm on an endless loop, and you have something approximating the progressive parts of the last several thousand years of Western Civilization.   Ignore a couple of key clauses, and you have a much wider array of outcomes.  Not all good, and some downright scary.   Do it just like this, and you might, if you’re lucky, end up with an open, tolerant, prosperous, enlightened democracy.

That’s it.  That’s what it takes.  The Golgafrinchans managed it, apparently…and so did we.  But it was a narrow victory, and the question is whether we can manage to keep it up…..

Happy Towel Day!

The Solid Waste Debacle in San Juan County

(Sent to the County Council and Island newspapers today)

After reading today’s article in the San Juan Islander entitled “SW budget based on OI Facility Only,” I am compelled to comment.  I will attempt to keep my comments respectful and civil, but the ludicrousness of the options being presented here makes that somewhat difficult.

While I understand that we face difficult budget choices, and apparently are going to pay dearly for our past choices in this policy area, the idea that an island county should live with zero or just one point for solid waste removal is alarming.

Paradise Terrestre, Four Years Hence…

Sometime in spring, I start being aware that the anniversary of my move to the island is coming up.  In past years, I’ve held a big party on the closest weekend.  Something about this year was different.  This morning I remembered that today was the day after I woke up and was drinking a big mug of coffee on the deck.

Four years ago today, I loaded up the used Land Rover (bought off Craigslist), and headed to the Anacortes ferry dock, and sailed for San Juan Island.  I’d worked here the summer of 1987, part of the summer of 1988, and intermittently visited my colleagues in 1990 and 1991.  My mother and her twin sister (my aunt), had graduated from high school on Orcas Island (having moved up for their senior year to board with relatives while my grandmother ran off to Vegas for one of her marriages).  So I had history.  Of the places one could flee and reinvent oneself after a decade or more of hard work — six companies and four more as board/investor advisor — this called to me.

And so here I am.

That first day, I rolled off the ferry, familiar from past trips, into a town coated with nostalgia and memories, and stopped at Thane Bolger’s office and picked up the keys to my house.  The packing in Seattle wasn’t completely done, and the moving truck wasn’t arriving up here for another 3 weeks, but today was the day, because the house closed the day before.  I wasn’t willing to wait any longer to draw a line under the previous daily life I’d led, and start a new one.  By the end of the day, I’d set up a temporary futon bed in the room that is now my office, a card table in the dining room, Rockisland had installed my internet connection, and I had some minimal patio furniture.  It would turn out to be all I needed for the best three weeks I can remember.

Once set up, I headed to Friday Harbor for dinner at Steps Wine Bar and Cafe, run by my friend Madden Surbaugh.  I’d met Madden the day I found my house, while sitting at the former Pelindaba cafe across from his (then) front door.  I popped my head in, saw Madden wilting an utterly massive pan of greens, and much of my island life since then has been shaped and determined by that moment.  I sat at the window table, and had a terrific meal (documented, along with my impressions of that day, here).  I had a bottle of 1988 Vieux Telegraphe that I’d brought up for the occasion.  Later, sitting on the deck, I finished the Chateauneuf-du-Pape and enjoyed the sunset.

Today, four years later, after 1460 days on the island, I still love it here.

As I reread each of my yearly anniversary dispatches, I am struck by how I lived a relatively charmed life for most of the first two years.  I read, I studied, I enjoyed a bit of socializing and a lot of meals at Madden’s, but I had relatively little impact or influence, or was influenced by, the local community.

That all changed about a year and a half ago, when I ended up replacing my friend Cloud on the board of the San Juan Islands Agricultural Guild.  Our current project, the Permanent Farmer’s Market in Friday Harbor, quickly became difficult and contentious.  Increasingly I found myself puzzling about the community to which I’d moved.  I clearly didn’t quite understand the demographics, the political makeup, the needs and wants of this community.  I entered a period where my impressions of the island, quite frankly, were mixed at best.  I loved the physical setting but I was clearly rebelling and coming to terms with the community itself.  Tellingly, I didn’t even write a 2009 dispatch on my anniversary, a fact I didn’t actually know until I just went looking for it to link in the previous paragraph.

I’m not going to go into the FM project or other projects I’ve become involved with in depth.  Each deserves better than random reminiscences.

But suffice it to say that I’m starting to come out of the valley….which I now recognize as the “holy shit” reality check about the enormity of how I’ve changed my life…and am starting to be at peace again with my decision.  I’ll say it again, I love it here.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t grind my teeth about the difficulties of establishing a permanent downtown Farmer’s Market, or at the difficulties of simply disposing of one can of trash given the Solid Waste debacle, or at the regular delays and irritations of island life.  Those things aren’t temporary parts of adjusting.  They’re the grievances of an island resident.

But it does mean that I sit on my deck tonight, four years from the day I arrived, contemplating what the fifth year will bring, with something approaching optimism.  Much has changed — Madden is on Orcas at Rosario, I’m on the Library board and we’re selecting a new Director to replace Laura, and I split my time between here and Seattle in order to spend as much time with Nicole as I can — but much also remains the same.  I sit here outside with a laptop and a glass of wine, music playing, writing and watching the sunset build, and recall Lawrence Durrell’s words, that spell out my own affliction with such poetry:

Somewhere among the notebooks of Gideon I once found a list of diseases as yet unclassified by medical science, and among these there occurred the word Islomania, which was described as a rare but by no means unknown affliction of spirit. There are people, as Gideon used to say, by way of explanation, who find islands somehow irresistible. The mere knowledge that they are on an island, a little world surrounded by the sea, fills them with an indescribable intoxication….But like all Gideon’s theories it was an ingenious one. I recall how it was debated by candlelight in the Villa Cleobolus until the moon went down on the debate, and Gideon’s contentions were muffed in his yawns; until Hoyle began to tap his spectacles upon his thumbnail of his left hand, which was his way of starting to say goodnight….Yet the word stuck; and though Hoyle refused its application to any but Aegean islands….we all of us, by tacit admission, knew ourselves to be ‘islomanes.’

I can’t wait to see what Year Five in my very own Paradise Terrestre brings.

Doctorow v. Johnson: iWhatevers versus Open Platforms and the Future of Computing

This last weekend the first iPads shipped to early adopters in the general public, including me. Like many of us in the technology business, I’ve kept a weather eye on the first impressions of many folks on the web, and friends in the industry. Most of these reactions are the stuff of geek discussion, and not terribly enlightening either about the device and its potential future uses, or the direction in which our industry is moving.

But one exchange is worth analysis and our attention, whatever the details of the device and our first impressions. Cory Doctorow, open-source freedom fighter extraordinaire and speculative fiction author, published a widely discussed, negative essay concerning the very idea of the iPad. By now, you’ve probably read it, or seen the link. If you haven’t, you should.

Cory’s essential points are two (with apologies if I’m missing something serious). First, that open platforms (think Linux, Android, FreeBSD, etc) are structurally designed to foster innovation at minimal entry cost, and with minimum friction to the innovator, and minimal interference between the innovator and the eventual consumer of those innovations. Second, Doctorow argues that the justification everyone is citing for the closed system — “making computers easy for mainstream users” — is insulting to mainstream users.

Joel Johnson responds that Doctorow’s principal arguments miss the point. In particular, that openness and innovation are not causally linked to the extent that open-source and Linux advocates claim. That innovation will thrive on the “nearly closed” platforms like the iPad and iPhone.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

I'm sitting drinking coffee in what will be one of the last completely quiet moments for the next few days.  In a couple of hours friends and family will start arriving for two days of Thanksgiving food and fun.  In a few minutes I'll start preparing a few things, even though we're going to Steps tonight for Madden's island Thanksgiving and saving the "big" traditional dinner at my place for tomorrow.

But for now, the coffee is hot and strong, and the mountains of the Canadian coast range are visible to the north, with hints of blue sky to the west past Speiden Island.  It's a perfect autumn morning in the Northwest, at least from my perspective, and I'm thrilled to be home to enjoy it.  It's been a whirlwind few weeks since the election and it's not going to get any less busy between now and Christmas. 

I bought a cider press this fall and have plenty of apples from C's orchard here on the island, and many more from Rebecca Moore's terrific farm (Blue Moon Farm) on Waldron Island. I still have plenty left to press, but the cider thus far is sweet, deeply flavored, but with great tartness and acidity.  I've frozen a gallon already and hope to press-gang my friends into helping me squeeze more this weekend. 

I'll write more soon, but I just wanted to say Happy Thanksgiving to everyone reading out there.  Enjoy the day with friends and family!