Thursday, December 30, 2010

My opinions, such as they are

I've noticed the comments dropping off on my blog a bit, which I feel I can probably attribute to the holiday season and people generally having more exciting things to do than read this blog. Eating large amounts of food, for example. Or performing in Nativity pageants. Nevertheless, I can't help but wonder if it's not also a product of what I'm putting out there. After all, what is there really to comment on about snow? Perhaps my many readers are actually still out there reading, but just aren't getting enough to work with. (For the record, I truly appreciate all of you who've told me you read and just aren't big commenters. I don't need comments to feel I have a successful blog, I'm just trying to keep things interesting.)

Anyway, in light of this revelation, I'm devoting this post to shaking things up a bit with some controversial views on hot button topics. Actually, scratch that; I don't really want to tackle hot button topics at all. I will, however, try to take positions that I find controversial in that they go against conventional opinion. Such as: hating puppies, although I do not, in fact, hate puppies. I've already mentioned my distaste for mashed potatoes which I've found people consider as going against all that is tasty and good in the world. I've also mentioned my stubborn antipathy for James Franco, although I'm hoping this film's release will help cure people of their "James Franco can do no wrong" type sentiments. Today, I have two more for you:

1) Automatic windows in cars
I can only assume everybody likes these because I don't think they even put the manual window roll-up devices on cars anymore. But I can't help but wonder if they have been ubiquitously embraced without questioning the consequences. Now, I'm as lazy as the next person, and I too can appreciate the arm muscle saved (I mean, come on, if I wanted to use muscles willy nilly like that, I could have just walked wherever I was going and skipped the car all together, am I right?). No, my issue is not with the laziness factor; it's with the fact that you have to have the car on to operate the windows. How many times have you been waiting in a car while the driver ran in to get something and thought how stuffy it was with the windows up? Without the keys, your only option is to open the door. Okay, so that one has an easy fix. But what if you're trying to roll the windows up quickly because a serial killer/rabid dog/swarm of locusts is lunging for the open window--and the keys have fallen somewhere under the seat. I think it's important to prepare your life as if it could become a horror movie at any moment.

Luckily this woman either had her keys or had the archaic manual windows. Otherwise, she would be getting rained on, thanks to modern technology.

Granted, I don't own a car, but this oversight might just be on my list (albeit not particularly high on the list) of reasons not to acquire one.

2) Bananas and bacon on pizza
Now this is something I like, that I can't figure out why it hasn't caught on with other people. When I suggest the combination (outside of South Africa where I was introduced to it), I'm met with a mix of surprise and pity. Bananas are excellent with salty things--peanut butter and banana sandwiches come to mind. Likewise fruit is good on pizza, or at the very least, people have become used to seeing pineapple on it without recoiling. Bananas hold their shape surprisingly well on a pizza, and, as anyone who's ever had a banana fritter knows, they are excellent warmed up. I could understand it not becoming a staple at Pizza Hut or anything, but I've seen far weirder things on pizzas (even at chain places). Lettuce? Carrots? Celery? Surely, these things have no more business on pizza than bananas do, and yet they're all available on signature California Pizza kitchen pizzas. A travesty.

Okay, I'll admit this doesn't look super appetizing, but there are so few pictures of banana and bacon pizzas to choose from. The fact that the internet doesn't even seem familiar with this makes me feel that much more alone in my opinions.

Not terribly controversial, but there you have it. I hope everyone has a happy end of 2010!

Monday, December 27, 2010

A white post-Christmas

I spent a lovely Christmas holiday in Texas with its warm weather and delicious Czech pastries. It was a particularly fancy and well-0rchestrated Christmas in which both the good silver and holly-embroidered napkins made appearances. My mother and I even briefly thought that it would be a good idea to make rolls from scratch (er, or with the help of my mother's bread machine). This seemed like a good idea when we gamely wheeled our cart past the inferior brown-and-serve rolls in the grocery store. Less so on Christmas morning when we realized it still takes about 3 hours to go from ingredients to completed rolls even with the help of the modern technology of rapid rise yeast and an Oster. Also, we think we may have made some errors in the dough making as what should have been soft, yet malleable, bread dough turned out as this:My mom insisted we capture this moment for posterity. Or perhaps as a cautionary tale.

At any rate, I'm now back in Astoria, although just barely, as I caught one of the last flights out on Sunday before a massive storm hit the east coast. Although I think the media dubbing the storm "Snowmagedon" or "Snowpocalpse" are over-stating the case a bit, we did get a solid 20'' of snow which they've yet to clear from all but the major avenues of Astoria. Yesterday, I just stayed inside, watching the blizzard and the unluckly few floundering through it. I also, naturally, took a few pictures. Behold! Astoria in Snow.

This was the friendlier snow that I was willing to go out in because I didn't have food in my apartment.

30th Ave this morning. Suddenly glad I don't own a car.

I was hoping the office would be closed this morning, but considering the owner of the company lives in walking distance, it was sadly not to be. Since I have no personal days left at work and live within 3 blocks of a train that was inexplicably running on time despite being an above-ground train, I really had no excuse to call out. I showed up at work and was one of 15 people (of a total of about 100) who did so. Those of us who showed up were treated to lunch and got to leave an hour and a half early (despite most of us showing up at least a half an hour late). I could get used to this snow business. Also, going into the city enabled me to take some lovely Manhattan-in-snow shots. Here I am walking down the middle of Broadway. Luckily there were no cars because the sidewalks were not yet shoveled.

A path forged through Madison Square Park.

The few. The proud. The true Shake Shack devotees. Heat lamps or no, I have no idea why these people are eating outside.

Things are supposed to return to business as normal tomorrow (sadly, likely no more free lunches). Also, the snow will all transform into brown slush and treacherous ice. That said, perhaps because I had so few of them in my youth, I'm quite the fan of snow days.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Eating my way through the lone star state

I'm currently at my parent's house enjoying the 77 degree holiday weather in Spring, Texas. (For the record, those readers looking to rob my apartment now that they know I am far away from Astoria should know it is locked up and watched by both a tenacious roommate and a fierce guard cat. Also, unless you want a 4-year old Sony Vaio on which the e key hasn't worked in months...well you should probably move to greener pastures.) One thing I'm enjoying about being back in my hometown (besides not being at work and being able to go jogging outside) is the food.

New York is a seeming food mecca that should have every type of cuisine known to man (and some fusions they just make up when those options get tiresome). But there are a few things that I find Texas has New York soundly beat on. The first is obviously Mexican food. You can get some excellent Mexican food in New York, I grant you, but you also end up paying for it. Cheap, good Mexican food is the norm here, such that those modifiers would be redundant. In New York, "cheap" Mexican involves "guacamole" that has clearly never seen an avocado and far more closely resembles pea soup. Also, inexplicably, cheese fries.

The second thing, despite all the trendy "Southern comfort" food places in the city, is chicken fried steak. You would think, and maybe this is being a Tex-pat talking, that slathering a plate-sized piece of steak or chicken in batter, deep-frying it, and slathering it in white gravy would be popular anywhere. Strangely, this isn't the case.

Finally, and this is really the most important: kolaches and donuts. Kolaches, for those readers who have never experienced these little pillows of heaven are rolls filled with sausage and cheese and any number of other delicious options. They're originally a Czech or Polish thing brought over to Texas and, I think, parts of the Midwest. There is a place by Grand Central called Kolache Mama that claims to sell these. Trust me, they do not.

They don't photograph super well, but, trust me, these taste better than the slightly-misshapen eggs they appear to be.

The other issue is donuts. New York is a bagel city and thus not terribly worried about the taste of their donuts. That said, relying on Dunkin' Donuts (or worse yet: deli and bodega donuts) for all your donut needs just isn't right. If you're ingesting half of your daily sugar in one meal, you might as well enjoy it. And as far as I'm concerned, with the possible exception of fresh Munchkins, these just aren't worth it.

At any rate, this will likely be my last post while I'm home, so I want to wish all my readers a happy, food-filled holiday wherever you are! I shall enjoy the precious edible regionalism while I'm here and be thankful I can run outside again.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Location, location, location

I began this blog over 7 months ago. A total of 231 days. The approximate gestation period of a hippopotamus. In that time, I've mentioned basically every day-trip (or weekend trip or longer vacation) I've taken, photographically documented much baking and currying, and developed a somewhat irrational and one-sided enmity for James Franco. In between these adventures, I have very half-halfheartedly tried to give my blog some local relevance by throwing in references to my beloved neighborhood, Astoria. It is either that or come up with a new blog name.

To that end, today I sifted through a little local news and found this article that piqued my interest. And yes, I realize the article is from September. At this point in time (and really until such time as I grow paranoid enough to get my own police scanner), I can promise only Astoria information, not up-to-the-minute headlines. But back to the article! My interest was piqued in part because I used to live about a block from those (formerly) high cost condos. It was my first real apartment (I choose not to count the 2 month sublet in a basement with no kitchen) in New York. When I lived there, back in 2008, they were just building those condos. I would observe the construction happening on what is a truly mammoth building and wonder why anyone, who had the money to invest in some chic condo, would want to live out there. I would trudge 15 minutes (I feel 20 is really journalistic hyperbole) through the snow and ice, past a White Castle and McDonalds as the scant dining options, and think "This just doesn't feel like fancy condo territory."

For those of you who didn't feel like reading the article (and, frankly, there's not much reason to), it explains that the cutting of the QM22 bus to Manhattan has had devasting consqueneces to this building project hoping to sell million dollar condos in no man's land. My first thought on reading this was: there was a bus to Manhattan there that only recently got cut? And secondly: how the hell didn't I know about this when I was trudging through the snow back in 2008?

As a side note for clarification: Don't get me wrong; I truly loved my first apartment in Astoria. I painted the living room walls a lovely, homey teal; I had what has turned out to be the largest bedroom I've yet occupied in New York; and I met a roommate who has become one of my closest friends in the city. That said, aside from the proximity to tiny burgers, the location is just terrible.

I also have one more piece of Astoria news! Check out the new website for this great (Astoria-residing) graphic designer. Keep him in mind for all your freelance design needs.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The land of steel and penguins

This weekend, I yet again left the warm embrace of Astoria to continue my as-of-yet-unmentioned pilgrimage to all the former steel capitals of the United States. My journey to Pittsburgh was 99% about seeing the sites of this industry marvel and 1% about visiting my dear friend B who is studying there. (Just kidding, B, and thanks for letting me sleep on your sofa bed!) Nevertheless, Pittsburgh surprised me with its, at times somewhat surreal, charm and its unparalleled obsession with its sports teams. Per my usual take on travel writing, I'll be letting photos do much of the work for me. After all, Pittsburgh is, in many ways, a city that needs to be seen to be truly appreciated.

On Friday night, shortly after arriving in the steel city, we visited the Phipps Conservatory which is open in the evening only on Friday nights. The botanical gardens were all decked out in a Christmas display that interestingly featured a great deal of snowman carnage. At one point, our group happened on Santa's chair, completely vacated of Santa. We did what any self respecting group of young adults would do and tried to see how many people we could fit in Santa's chair. We then made weird faces and asked some drunk woman to take a picture of us.

This is so my Christmas card next year.

Another favorite of mine from Phipps was an extensive miniature town with several trains running through it. I tried to take the obligatory picture of me as a giant trying to squash the tiny town, but because my timing was off, I just look like a regular-sized person who hates toy train tracks. Oh well, can't win them all.
Nothing about this picture does the tiny town justice. You'll just have to take my word for it. Or visit Pittsburgh.

The other highlight of the trip (aside from some excellent waffles) was a museum called the Mattress Factory that is apparently the best kept secret in Pittsburgh. You wouldn't think it was a secret given the copious signage advertising it, but all the bus drivers we asked about it looked as us like were crazy. Perhaps "mattress factory" has some other tawdry meaning to some, but all I got was confused or repulsed looks, rather than helpful directions. Nevertheless, it's a fine museum and definitely worth a visit. When we were there, they had an exhibit of Cuban art that was very interesting. The follow pictures are from that:
In hindsight, I feel pretty uncouth and insensitive smiling in front of what is clearly a heavy-handed political message.

This is just the sort of seedy thing the bus drivers of Pittsburgh were subtly trying to warn us about.

This, in a nutshell, is Pittsburgh.

Overall, it was a wonderful trip to one of the true American cities. A city where a sandwich with cole slaw and french fries on it is consistently described as the only local cuisine. Where you can get updates on the Steelers game on a loud speaker in the airport bathroom that has the same urgency as actual flight updates. A city where it is possible to have endless baskets of bacon with your happy hour. Frankly, I wouldn't be upset to call such a place home. Well except for the football-crazed thing. Either way, it was wonderful to see my friend again and to meet some new ones. And both thanks and apologies to all the over-worked grad students who helped make my weekend great!

Also, apropos of nothing, it's really cold in Pittsburgh!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Holiday rambling, punctuated by a few photos

Despite owning few Apple products (almost none of which I've actually purchased for myself), I seem to have an obsession with the utility of the iphone as a camera. Which is my roundabout way of saying that none of the below pictures are from an actual camera, despite my owning a fine one. The other night I had yet another incident of remembering to bring my camera (as a matter of fact, actually going back to get it), and yet neglecting to remember the all important memory card. So as both I and my camera have issues with memory, I turn to the all important iphone camera for some shots of the city at Christmas. There are only a couple of pictures actually. I hope I haven't over-sold any of this.

I'm not sure you can really see what's going on here. The detail of a Bergdorf Goodman's window is difficult to capture even with the technological advances of Apple in the palm of your hand. I always enjoy the 5th Ave Christmas hoopla, which sadly goes hand in hand with the 5th Ave Christmas crowds (different from normal 5th Ave crowding in that each person's girth is widened by shopping bags which they use as weapons against anyone--be it small child or Salvation Army bell ringer--who dares keeps them from the entrance to the Nine West Outlet) . But this year the windows of Bergdorfs were particularly stunning. I find it hard to believe that anything actually in their store, for all that its worth, could be as intricate or as amazing as the displays. However, I'll never know because I try to avoid actually going into stores when I know I can't afford anything in them. It helps keep me content with my class.

Normally, I try to not post semi-unflattering pictures of me looking both cold and irresponsible for not wearing a hat. But obviously I had to post this one, as there is an iconic holiday emblem to my left. Or I guess to my right. But at the left of the photograph. As you can see by the large mass of people behind me, I'm not the only one who knows about it.

This one probably won't make much sense to all but a couple of my readers. It's actually more of a preview of things to come (as in, I will soon make a post with a series of pictures of me at landmarks around the city with a tiger puppet on my hand, for reasons to be explained later). Suffice is to say, FAO Shwartz is one more enjoyable part of the holiday season in New York. Fans of the movie Big can see some real live piano dancing every hour on the big piano. If you've ever visited me between the months of November and March, I've probably made you do this. At any rate, the above arc is for purchase with two of every stuffed animal possible for the very reasonable price of just over $2,ooo. Some slightly spoiled, Biblically-minded kid's Christmas just got better. Not included in the price is the tiger puppet in the foreground. That came from a dollar store in Conway, Arkansas.

Sorry this post is so scattered. By way of apology, I'll leave you with my favorite photo taken on an iphone this week. This little gem was captured by my roommate:

Dinah acts so put upon by my absences, but I think she does all right for herself when I'm not there.

Monday, December 6, 2010

What to get for the person who has everything and likes soap

This year I started my holiday shopping early (before Thanksgiving even) and thus lulled myself into a false sense of security. Now it's nearly Pearl Harbor Day, and I'm still missing gifts for some of the important people in my life. In addition to getting gifts for the aforementioned loved ones, I also need to get one for my office holiday party which has the added disadvantages of requiring a strict price limit, being for someone I don't know well (though who doesn't want a Starbucks giftcard, right?), and being a full week and a half before Christmas.

I've been looking for gift ideas online because it's a scary world out there right now in actual stores. Also, going to real-world stores with their finite inventories would require me to actually have a general idea of what I wanted to buy. Unfortunately, even online I haven't found anything that exactly suits my recipients (at least the ones I don't already have gifts for). But, rather than have all that time go to waste (alongside most minutes I spend online), I'm posting the gift ideas here for the first ever Living the Astorian Dream holiday gift guide! Just a note, I realize this post is unluckily placed directly above a post railing against the blind consumerism that brings us useless products, because as you will see many of the gifts I'm about to mention are themselves somewhat useless. The only defense I have for this hypocrisy is that it's totally acceptable to buy these useless things as long as they're cute and you're giving them to other people. Ahem.
To redeem myself, the first place I recommend is Mxplyzyk (the weird name is some kind of Superman reference) is a Greenwich Village based giftshop and almost all of what they sell is both cute AND useful. From cute bath stoppers ( to fetching salt and pepper shakers (, this place makes for some great semi-utilitarian gifts. I'm also a big fan of the cute measuring cups above!

What could be more useless than a goldfish in a bag that will inevitably develop fin rot or whatever mysterious ailment kills all carnival prize goldfish? Actually, probably just keeping them in a small quantity of water in a plastic bag for an extended period of time likely does them in, but I digress. No matter, the above is far more useful because it's, in fact, a tangerine grapefruit soap available from Vat19 ( Vat19 is an online gift and gadget site best known for selling the world's largest gummy bear (a disgusting looking confection that is apparently equal to 1,400 regular gummy bears). They have some interesting gift items up for sale and even have them organized by potential recipient from "inner child" to "person who has everything."
I think umbrellas are the perfect gift for anyone because you're constantly losing them and needing them replaced. Then again, I also have decided people shouldn't give me cute umbrellas because I've lost too many of them and clearly don't deserve nice things. But surely you know someone who can handle the responsibility of remembering to pick up their umbrella off the floor of the bar/train/Dunkin' Donuts even after it has stopped raining. If so, there are some cute umbrellas (even a goldfish one) at modcloth: The independent, self-proclaimed "mod-retro" online clothing shop also has some great accessories, and I've bought a couple of dresses from them in the past as well.

So yes, from the people who measure things to the people who use soap (and want to smell like tangerine after doing so) to the people who don't like to get wet--this should cover absolutely everyone on your shopping list. And while no one frankly needs their soap to be plastic-fish-filled or their measuring cups to be babushakas, well, isn't this what gift giving is all about?

One more thing: per my semi-monthly attempts to give this blog some actual local relevance, your Astoria tidbit of the season is that there is currently a holiday craft fair going on at the beer garden in Astoria. They have raffles on the weekends (still waiting for that call about the green vase) and you can buy eggnog while you shop for gifts made by local artisans. It's pretty small (this is the first year), but I went a couple of weekends ago and they do have some really nice jewelry and small art pieces. Also cakes balls on a stick.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The sky's the limit

I've spent a lot of time on airplanes lately, although really I shouldn't say that yet as I still have another four flights this month to undergo. Whenever you fly out of JFK your flight is inevitably delayed for an hour or so after you're already on the plane. As discomforting as it is to hear, once you're strapped in with your tiny allotment of leg room, that you're now 50th in line for take-off, it does give you more time to do one thing: peruse the Skymall catalog. For some reason, this is something I only do while the plane is on the ground. I guess it's because I find it difficult to read during the actual take off, and I don't want to get too involved in a book. Coming back from Texas this weekend though, I ended up getting through the entire catalog because we were an hour on the ground due to a "mechanical error" that turned out to be the toilet in the back lavatory not flushing.

The Skymall catalog is just brimming with innovative products whose sole market seems to be people whose mental acuity is compromised by breathing recycled oxygen in a pressurized airplane cabin. From the standpoint of an inventor, it seems that you would think of a need that requires filling, create a product to fill it, and then sit back and wait for capitalism to do the rest. The problem with so many of the products in Skymall is that I can't figure out what need they're hoping to satisfy.

Exhibit A: The Marshmallow Shooter
According to Skymall: "This clever pump-action device shoots sweet, edible miniature marshmallows over 30', and--unlike other marshmallow blasters--it comes with an LED sight that projects a safe beam of red light to help locate a target for accuracy." Which leads me to two questions: 1) There are other marshmallow blasters? and 2) They don't have LED sighting?? If that's the case, I doubt I'd have much accuracy at all projecting marshmallows up to 30 feet. And then what would be the point.

Exhibit B: Electronic Feng Shui Compass
Let's assume for a minute that you are someone who cares passionately about the ancient Chinese system of aesthetics known as Feng Shui. Are you seriously going to put the state of your positive chi in the hands of a little machine that can't possibly comprehend your goals and intentions? I don't think anything truly spiritual comes with a USB charger attachment.

Exhibit C (my personal favorite): The Litter KwitterIf this really works, Skymall really should stop marketing their (literally) 20 different options for fancy litter boxes with computers in them so that you can own a cat and never actually shovel its feces. They also have litter boxes that double as end tables and cost far more than my entire IKEA living room set.

Apologies to any readers who own and love these products. Actually, if you do for some reason own one, I'd be very curious to know if it works. Can you really shoot a marshmallow up to 30 feet? And do you find it's more satisfying then just throwing one? Do you now have to get in line behind your cat at the bathroom? Has your bedroom never felt more spiritually balanced? Inquiring minds (well at least one) want to know.