Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Cook's Illustrated

My sister gave us a subscription to Cook's Illustrated. Kent has said how he enjoys watching the PBS series, America's Test Kitchen, which is produced by the same people.

We got our first issue last week. Kent made use of one of the magazine's suggestions when he was making soup last night. When he added an egg he first mixed some corn starch with the egg. "Adding just 1/2 teaspoon of cornstarch to the egg that's drizzled into the soup at the end of cooking seemed to have a tenderizing effect," says a sidebar to an article on making hot & sour soup.

The nerdiness of America's Test Kitchen is more appealing on TV than in print. Whenever they make something they always wonder if they're using the best utensil for the job, or the best brand of vinegar, or whether the casserole cooks better on the upper shelf or lower shelf of the oven, or whatever. So they get together the different brands and test them. You want your bundt cake to fall easily out of the mold? There are spray on nonstick coatings that work better than the others (Pam for Baking and Baker's Joy). They put together panels of tasters who sip gallons of vinegars. Or they cook 18 casseroles, 3 on the top shelf front, 3 on the top shelf back, 3 on the middle shelf front, 3 on the middle shelf middle, and so on. It's like Consumer Reports devoted to cooking. The only color photos are on the cover. Gourmet this is not.

"In barbecue circles, the fat cap is almost always left face up, and many recipes repeat the same admonition when the meat is destined for the oven. But does it matter?" The short answer: Yes. The long answer: Three paragraphs. They cooked two briskets, one with fat on top, one with fat on bottom then compared. The fat, by melting over the meat, sealed in moisture.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

where you're coming from

I added a new utility to my links column (on the right), "Web pages referring to this page". I've seen it on Avoiding the Muse and Dale gets lots & lots of referrals. The referrals utility has been up since last week and so far the only referral it's recorded is the one I did as a test.

I had a referrals utility before (which I'd also picked up from AtM) and I'd always been dubious about its statistics -- was I really getting 90 referrals a day from LoveSettlement (my other blog)? The new referrals utility seems not to agree with the old one. But are no search engines leading people here?

2/3/06 update: I deleted the referring links utility.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

interview question II

In prep for an interview for a position in Children's Services I checked out a handful of books. The interview was today. Last week I was on an interview panel myself and on this blog talked about the answers candidates gave to the What've-you-read-lately question.

The question came up today, too. How did I answer?

The books I checked out were ones I'd picked from the lists of recommended books the librarians have drawn up. Bunnicula by James & Deborah Howe, My Father's Dragon by Ruth Gannett, Two Bad Bears in the Big City by Daniel Pinkwater (actually this is a sequel to the one the librarians had listed), The Not-Just-Anybody Family by Betsy Byars, and poet Donald Hall's Ox-Cart Man.

I read none of these as a child -- but then only two were available when I could have read them "as a child". Besides, there being so many interesting books I haven't read, I didn't consider rereading any (even if it's been decades since the first time).

I often find Hall's poetry dull but liked Ox-Cart Man for its simple details and slightly stiff (old fashioned?) structure. Hall wasn't in pronouncements mode the way so many a contemporary poet goes wrong; he was just saying, this is what the farmer & his family did and this is the order they did those things.

I enjoyed Betsy Byars' Not-Just-Anybody Family, though in a short book swinging back & forth between the distinct points of view of five characters in five different places I got a twinge of whiplash. I think the story only takes place over two days, but the boy whose legs got broken seems to wake up & fall asleep enough for three or four days.

Bunnicula was cute and a bit overly joshy. Still, gotta give 'em points for a vegetarian vampire.

I read a Daniel Pinkwater book every few years, just to keep up. He's a funny guy.

In the interview I only talked about My Father's Dragon, having taken it from the shelf partly because of the striking stripes on the dragon. I liked the folktale (hero's journey) structure of the tale. It's told as something that happened to someone else (the narrator's father), in a (relatively) distant time, the hero goes on a quest, taking with him a bundle of objects that only prove their utility in unexpected circumstances (as when lollipop-loving alligators make a bridge across a river when the boy attaches a lollipop to each alligator tail, the boy able to cross on the alligaors' backs as each 'gator licks the lollipop tied to the tail of the next), the boy is clever without being obnoxiously brilliant, and the dangers seem real (the wild animals have a taste for boys). I thought it would read aloud well. I recommended the book to children 6 to 11. It has a great beat, you can dance to it.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006


The interviews I discuss in the post below, by the way, were for a 15-hour a week job affixing RFID tags to items in the library's collection -- not the sort of task that requires (or invites?) intellectual engagement. So the answers to the book question probably made no difference one way or the other.

interview question

At Berkeley Public Library nearly every job interview includes the question, "Tell us about a book you've read recently that you enjoyed. Who would you recommend it to and why?"

What with my recent promotion I guess I'm of a high enough rank to join interview panels -- I was on one today. The two other people on the panel have been supervisors for years and years and have hired lots of staff. I think I was there more to gain experience myself (& to provide a warm body) than for my expertise in sussing out the great workers.

We interviewed five people. None of them did very well on the what've-you-read-lately question.

One actually said she was enjoying the work of a poet. Sadly, she blanked on the poet's name. "She lists nonsense syllables that, as you read them, make a musical sense." I made one guess at the poet's name, but didn't hit it.

Another, after biting her lips, said she'd been reading to her kids a lot lately and could recommend The Cat in the Hat. "It's fun to read," she said. "Last night my son kept telling me not to sing as I read."

Our youngest interview mentioned Guns, Germs, and Steel, but the best he could offer about it? "It reaffirmed a lot of my ideas." Nice! Which ideas were those?

One of the other members of the interview panel went off, after this candidate left, about how poorly written the book is. Curious, I quite liked it. I don't recall thinking it at all poorly written.

The Historian has "an engaging plot", said another candidate. I thought the title vaguely familiar so prodded, "Is it a thriller?" "I guess you could classify it that way," she said. "The hero chases Dracula around." Who would she recommend the book to? "Probably to my best friend."

The Screwtape Letters. When my brother and I read the Chronicles of Narnia as kids we got interested in C. S. Lewis. I remember David talking about reading The Screwtape Letters. What did our candidate say? Our candidate alluded to the subject being "theology" and (like the young man who liked Guns, Germs, and Steel) found it a good book for "starting discussions".

"None of them gave good reader's advisory," said one of the other panelists.

"What were these books about?" I said.

Saturday, January 07, 2006


Gregory Maguire seems to have wanted to explore the nature of wickedness. So he wrote Wicked: the Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. Contemplating the project I thought Maguire would use his novel to explain how the witch became wicked and, incidentally, explain other things, like why a pail of water melted her.

But it turns out Elphaba (the name Maguire gives "the Wicked Witch of the West", basing it on the initials of the author of the Wizard of Oz) is neither wicked nor a witch nor from the Winkie Country (Oz's western province). She did some things that could be construed as bad -- sicced a swarm of bees on a man, killing him (but the command seems to have been unconscious -- the bees did her will without her realizing it) and she neglected her child (she treats him like a stranger). Though, oddly, she seems to have been born with some evilesque characteristics -- like sharp teeth that make breastfeeding hazardous for Mom. She never studies witchcraft (though her sister, the WWotE, does) but powers seem to manifest nevertheless -- as when she races across a river to rescue a monkey and the river freezes under her feet, saving her from dampness -- but maybe this was coincidence, as even the text suggests, since if a river can freeze instantly why not a pathetic little pail of water? But, and this left me most dissatisfied, what was the basis of Elphaba's allergy to water? No explanation is ever offered -- other than it being inherent, I guess.

At least L. Frank Baum gives us this: "Once the Witch struck Toto a blow with her umbrella and the brave little dog flew at her and bit her leg in return. The Witch did not bleed where she was bitten, for she was so wicked that the blood in her had dried up many years before." One may decide that her dryness had become essential to her in some way. Thus the deadliness of a spot of water.

Though born in the Munchkin Country Elphaba ends up in the Winkie Country because that's where the father of her child lived. Elphaba is seeking forgiveness from her dead lover's widow (forgiveness for having seduced the husband). The widow seems uninclined to give it mainly because it's boring and lonely in Winkieland and if she forgives Elphaba the woman will go away and make Winkieland more boring & lonely than ever.

While Maguire's prose can be well-wrought the text is frequently grim. This is an Oz with a fascist ruler (the Wizard tortures people, has secret police); famine stalks the land; the weather kinda sucks; and amoral capitalists engage Elphaba in tiresome arguments about the nature of evil.