Quick Hit: A Tale of Two Nonfiction Books

Eleventy weeks ago, I started reading The Classical World, by Robin Lane Fox. It is a history, stretching from Homer to Hadrian. I am a big fan of one-volume history books: they allow me to have a little bit of knowledge about a lot of things, and while some say this is dangerous, I do not think that that particular cliche applies to things like world history – yes, spending five minutes on Web MD will erroneously convince you that you have cancer, but spending two weeks with a history of Latin America, say, is bound to be good for you rather than bad.

The problem, here, is that I have not spent two weeks with The Classical World, I have spent eleventy, or thereabouts, and am still not half-way through. On the other hand, drained by continuing efforts to read the book, I picked up Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma last weekend and devoured it (har har) in two days. Pollan’s book details the origins of four meals: a fast-food dinner at McDonald’s, a Big Organic meal from Whole Foods, a locally, sustainably farmed meal, and a dinner that Pollan hunts and forages largely on his own. I learned about Big Corn, industrial slaughterhouses, and food “formulation”; how one has to have a device on their combine to chase away field mice before the wee organic spring mix lettuces are harvested; how pigs, alcoholic corn kernels, and wood chips can turn six months’ worth of cow shit into beautiful compost; and what sort of people go hunting for wild chanterelles, among other things. It was a fascinating, enervating, enraging, inspiring book about food.

So what’s the problem here? It’s not that Greek and Roman history aren’t interesting. It’s just that these two authors have come up against the dilemma of conveying facts to interested lay people. Sometimes nonfiction books are too concerned with the laity of their audience; they come off as more narrative fluff than factual discourse, and this is a rip-off. It’s is boring, but also condescending: I am reading your book to learn about this subject in an at least somewhat meaningful way, not just to listen to you jabber about the most superficial of supposedly “scandalous” points of interest regarding it; treat me like a curious adult, able and desirous to learn.

On the other hand, one can go too far in the other direction: nonfiction books for laypeople need also to be narratively interesting. I am not SO fascinated by this topic, dear author, that I have chosen to devote years of study to it; rather, I am willing to sit down and learn 600 or so pages of the material that will give me the best general outline of the subject. It can’t be dry – thorough, yes, but not pedantic or plodding. In other words, the book must be stylistically engaging; I’m reading for enjoyment, not to get my Ph.D.

And so there is a sweet spot: academically thorough but narratively engaging. It’s hard to pull off. Mr. Pollan has done it, and Mr. Fox has not, alas. I’m still slowly plodding through The Classical World, and I expect to finish it, but I doubt I’ll review it here when I do. It’s not fantastically dreadful like Travels in Siberia, and so ripe for a blog thrashing; its subject matter interests me or I wouldn’t have bought it in the first place, and its author, furthermore, doesn’t seem like a douchebag. It’s just dull.

By the way, if you’re looking for a good one-book history of Latin America, allow me to recommend Born in Blood and Fire by John Charles Chasteen.

Summer Hummus

As the heat of summer rolls in, I find myself searching for recipes that provide full flavor and hearty enjoyment without the need to be cooked ahead of time or heated up before eating. At the suggestion of one of my co-workers (with whom I often conspire to bring in a Friday snack), I went back to one of my old-favorite, but long-neglected recipes, basic hummus.

TahiniWhy has my hummus recipe been so long-neglected? Well the unfortunate thing about hummus is that while most of the ingredients are cheap and easy to come by, one key ingredient is both expensive and not exactly “garden variety”–sesame tahini. It sounds exotic, but sesame tahini is fundamentally sesame seed butter, i.e. ground and pureed sesame seeds just like peanut butter is ground and pureed peanuts. While most large grocery stores, at least in cities the size of Pittsburgh, will stock tahini, chances are it will be expensive. $6 or $7 dollars for a jar that’s around the same size or smaller than the average peanut butter jar.

In order to make hummus with any degree of regularity, I would have to find some inexpensive tahini. I turned to Amazon, as I do for many shopping dilemmas. From bulk spices to facial moisturizing cream, I have found that many items are, in fact, cheaper to buy in bulk on Amazon than in the store. Some items, of course, are assuredly not cheaper (don’t try to buy hair gel online!), but oftentimes I do find a great deal, and so I thought such might be the case with tahini. I scoured all the tahini offerings for the best deal, and found Al Wadi Tahina for about $14 for two 32 oz jars (i.e. pretty darn big jars; each at least twice the size of an average tahini jar).

Armed with my bulk tahini, I was ready to revisit my old recipe. I’m going to post a version of my recipe that is built around using one can of chickpeas. This recipe makes a nice modest amount, such as a bowlful to serve at a party amongst other hors d’oeuvres. Usually, however, I make double this recipe so I can have a stock that will last several days.


1 can (15 oz) of chickpeas
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1-2 teaspoons minced garlic
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons sesame tahini
paprika and/or red pepper, to taste
a dash or two of cumin
black pepper, to taste

Drain the chickpeas, but reserve the liquid. The chickpea liquid that the beans are canned with is very important for getting the right consistency without the hummus becoming too bland.

HummuaAssemble the drained chickpeas, lemon juice, garlic, olive oil, tahini and spices in the bowl of a food processor. Add small amounts at a time of the chickpea liquid to help the contents process smoothly. Add only enough to get the hummus to your desired consistency. Adding the whole of the leftover liquid will result in a hummus that is much too runny, so take your time and contribute small bits until you get the consistency you want. Some people like a thicker hummus than others; the choice is yours.

Chill the hummus a couple hours before serving. Serve with warm pitas or corn chips as a dip, or use with bread or tortillas to make a sandwich.

I also like to add Parmesan cheese when I make a hummus/tortilla sandwich. Also, this recipe can be made with an immersion blender, but it requires a bit more effort and perhaps a bit more liquid, so the food processor, if available and convenient, is definitely the recommended form of pureeing the ingredients.

Another great thing about hummus is its versatility. You can make many different flavors without changing in the recipe. Here are some I’ve tried so far:

SUN-DRIED TOMATO HUMMUS: Add sun- or oven-dried tomatoes to the food processor. Add enough to turn the hummus pink-ish in color.

LEMON HUMMUS: Increase the lemony flavor of the hummus without adding more liquid by adding the zest of half a lemon to the food processor

WASABI GINGER HUMMUS: Add a tablespoon (or more to taste) or Wasabi powder and two teaspoons (or more to taste) of ginger powder while mixing.

CILANTRO LIME: Substitute lime juice for lemon juice in the above recipe. Add the zest of half a lime if available. After the hummus is processed to creamy, add a small bunch of fresh cilantro and process the hummus on pulse until cilantro is chopped and integrated, but not pureed. You don’t want green hummus

PEANUT BUTTER HUMMUS: No tahini in sight? Down on sesame? Looking for a new twist on an old favorite? Substitute peanut butter (or almond butter or cashew butter) for the tahini. It will definitely be different from traditional hummus, but will keep you in the same ballpark of taste and consistency.

The Prince and the People

Due to the craziness of summer, we have fallen a bit behind in our Great India Buffet Tour, and so when schedules coincided for free time two weekends in a row, Sabrina and I took advantage to make two buffet trips.

Prince of IndiaOur first trip was to the Prince of India buffet in Oakland. I have been to Prince of India a number of times throughout the years and found it enjoyable, but Sabrina had only been to the restaurant once, her freshman year of college, for what she reports was an abominable experience. She had not returned in the intervening 11 years, but it was the only buffet we could find open past 3pm on a Saturday, so she made the leap to venture back.

The buffet at Prince of India was small and unsurprising. They had all the standards, Chicken Tikka Masala, Saag, Chicken Curry, Mattar Paneer, naan, pakoras, rice, etc., etc. The Prince of India also includes free fountain drinks as part of their buffet, which was unique to our buffet experience so far.

The food was… good enough. Sabrina reported that it represented a definite improvement over the semi-traumatic taste experience she’d had there 11 years ago. We both agreed the food was good, but just good. Sabrina found the saag to be a bit greasy, though, I didn’t mind it, but I’ve rarely met a saag I didn’t like. The Tikka Masala was tasty and we found the moistness of the chicken to be great, but, we both agreed, the sauce was unabashedly mild. We expect buffet food to be mild, but this one was extra mild. Prince of India does offer hot sauce on the buffet, but unlike some of the fresh made chili sauces we’ve encountered at other buffets, this one appeared to be no more than something of the Frank’s Red Hot ilk. There was a spiced cauliflower dish that I found enjoyable, considering that I never usually go for the dry vegetable dishes, I suppose it qualifies as the most pleasant surprise on the buffet. The rice pudding was perhaps my favorite part of the meal because if was very heavy on the cardamom.

At the end of the meal, we concluded that Prince of India was necessarily at the bottom of our list so far, but that’s not to say we disliked it. We simply found it pleasantly mediocre. While we would not go out of our way to make a trip back to Prince of India, we also wouldn’t talk anybody out of going. Considering that they have buffet hours until 5pm on a Saturday (and I believe the buffet is open fairly often other days, too), they may be the best place to go if you have a sudden buffet craving during off hours.

People's Indian RestaurantThe following Saturday, my plans for a short trip fell through, and so I proposed to Sabrina that we might try People’s Indian in Bloomfield. We had heard good things about it online, and we knew they had lunchtime buffet hours on Saturday. Joining us for this trip was Will, a fan of People’s from previous trips.

The buffet at People’s was among the smaller of the buffets we’ve visited, but we were otherwise greatly impressed. Aside from Tandoori Chicken there were none of the typical meat dishes in sight. There was a Chicken and Mushroom curry, a Chicken Shahi Korma, Aloo Saag, Chana Masala, spiced Zucchini and Matter Paneer. They had plain rice as well as a rice pilaf, and in addition to naan and pakoras, they offered Samosas on the buffet.

The first thing that struck us as we ate our inaugural bites was that the food was actually spicy. Hot spicy. Not extremely spicy, but certainly hotter than any other buffet we’ve tried. No need for extra hot sauce here. The dishes were also complex in flavor and fresh tasting. The Chana Masala was a particular favorite of mine and Sabrina’s. I was also a big fan of the Shahi Korma, Sabrina was impressed with the moistness of the Tandoori Chicken and Will noted that the saag was richly flavored without being greasy. Sabrina liked the samosa filling, though found the wrapping less than ideally crispy, but chalked that up to an unavoidable consequence of being served on a buffet.

As we mused over our dishes it became clear that a Buffet Tour upset was in the works. Our assessments were confirmed by a delightful apres diner treat, an offering unique so far to People’s buffet, a cup of hot chai to accompany our our dessert. While we all enjoyed the chai, Sabrina and I shied away from the fried dough dessert, but Will declared them to be a simply perfect specimen of Indian doughnut-ery. I had some of the rice pudding, and found it to be the only mildly disappointing thing on the buffet. There just wasn’t enough spice or flavor to it. No matter, I took a few bites and thoroughly enjoyed my chai.

By the end of the meal, People’s ranking was clear. While we did not think it strong enough to topple the leading buffet, Tamarind, we did find that it merited second place, pushing out Coriander, which had previously held that position. Despite having a much smaller buffet, People’s boasted a taste quality to trump Coriander in the end!

People's Indian on Urbanspoon

Prince of India on Urbanspoon

The Infamous Attachments

No aspect of Invisalign treatment inspires more trepidation than the tooth attachments, also called buttons or bumps. I experienced more than a smidgen of trepidation myself. Last Tuesday, after five weeks of wearing the aligners (three of those with aligners that had the attachment wells, or “bumps”), I finally got my attachments put on my teeth!

Before I go into details about the attachments and the process of getting them on, let’s flash backward to my first week of “bumpy” aligners. I related in my last Invisalign blog that I had mixed feelings about the aesthetics of the bumpy aligners. In the meantime, I’ve gotten pretty much accustomed to them, aesthetically. People don’t really seem to notice. Most of the time, when the subject of my Invisalign treatment comes up in conversation among people “in the know” (i.e. people who I’ve told about the treatment), people can’t tell whether the aligners are in or not, and don’t notice the bumps until I specifically point them out. In fact, my orthodontist’s assistant had me flat on the dentist chair and under the lights, ready to prep me for the attachments, when I said, “Should I take my aligners out?”

Attachments With Aligner OnThe biggest hurdle I faced the first week of my bumpy aligners was mouth irritation. My mouth, being unaccustomed to bumps on my teeth, got irritated at the places on the inside of my lips where the bumps rubbed against them (for some reason only on the right side of my face). I got canker-like stores and it took about five or six days from the start of the irritation for it to heal, and luckily I didn’t have the attachments actually on my teeth, so I could take my aligners out during periods of heavy conversation to keep them from getting further inflamed (unlike actual canker sores, they felt fine when the aligners weren’t on). And so, my mouth had the opportunity to get accustomed to the bumps without a 24 hour barrage of irritation.

Also in the time since my last blog, my orthodontist posted the animation of my treatment projection. Check it our here.

Now I come to my appointment Tuesday where I got my attachments. I was in the middle of aligner three, which was good, but not typical. Because my orthodontist was on vacation last week I had to wait five weeks rather than four to get my attachments. As a result, I was fully adjusted to the present aligner, so I don’t have to deal with getting used to a new aligner on top of the addition of the attachments.

I had more or less resolved myself to getting all the attachments, even the one on my right eye tooth that I find most aesthetically bothersome. Good thing, too, because the first chance I had to talk to my orthodontist, my mouth was already trussed up with all the appliances for keeping my mouth open and lips peeled back during the attachment application.

The procedure for getting the attachments on was really no big deal. Many Invisalign bloggers online seem to weather this experience with much physical and emotional trauma. I don’t get what the big deal is. They propped my lips open with plastic spreaders (not something I’d like to wear every day, but by no means uncomfortable for the space of 15 minutes). The orthodontist’s assistant cleaned the surfaces of the teeth where the attachments would be put on, inserted pads and suction to absorb excess saliva. She tried to put in a tongue guard to keep my tongue basically caged up, but I couldn’t bite down with it on, so she took it off and basically told me just to keep my tongue out of the way, which I did with little difficulty.

The assistant then did some mysterious preparatory things including, I believe, putting glue on my teeth. Then the orthodontist came in, literally put them on (via a template which is fundamentally a softer version of my current aligner) then left again. I respect his wanting to be involved and being the one to “put on the attachments” officially, but I think the assistant probably could have handled sticking these templates on my teeth. From there she “cured” the attachments with some manner of light on a small hand-held wand. Once my attachments were properly cured, she removed the template and set to cleaning up the glue. This is the only part of the process that I could imagine anyone would find unpleasant, but unless one has a severe dental phobia, I can’t imagine why. She used some manner of vibrating instrument to clean away the excess glue that got between my teeth and other places it shouldn’t been. Interestingly enough, they glue was not cleaned off the outer fronts of my teeth, leaving my teeth feeling a little rough; she said it would come off bit by bit as I brushed my teeth and took the aligners on and off. She also polished my attachments so to smooth out rough edges. I was told that they would smooth ever further as I take my aligners in and out.

Attachments Without Aligner OnAll in all, no where near the traumatic process that so many bloggers have bemoaned. At no time did I experience any discomfort above and beyond that of an ordinary teeth cleaning.

Now for the aesthetic issue. First of all, I had a minor misunderstanding about what the attachments would look like. When the orthodontist originally told me that they use “clear” material for the attachments, I pictured clear like glass. Well, this “clear” material is actually a “foggy” clear so that it appears to match your tooth color while still looking like a part of your tooth. On the upside, it blends in fairly well, and doesn’t look like a glass bead on my teeth (which I had imagined). On the downside, it is opaque-ish, and so you can easily catch sight of it when you catch it on a side angle, rather than looking at it straight on.

The bottom line is, it looks less obvious that I expected with my aligners off, and it is a little more visible when the aligners are on, but not really that much more than when the bumpy aligners were on my bare teeth. The aligners fit a little tighter with the attachments, and it is a bit harder to get them off (I broke the tip on one of my retainer “outie” tools trying to pop the bottom ones free). They certainly aren’t the “vice grip” one Invisalign patient described in my online research. My experience leads me to the conclusion that most Invisalign bloggers are either overly dramatic or woefully misinformed about their treatment such that all of these events prove to be so shockingly traumatic.

It strikes me that a lot of Invisalign patients who blog or comment online really overemphasize the bad parts of this process. Many times these “traumatic events” are the results of bad research (“OMG I never heard of these attachment things before my doctor put them on!”); in this day and age of the Internet, you have no excuse not to do extensive research before making a decision to undergo an expensive, cosmetic, medical procedure. I’ve known fundamentally what to expect at every stage of the game, with the exception of the Aligner Chewies (which are, frankly, one of my favorite parts of this experience).

Invisalign Attachment Side ViewMost of all, especially in regard to the attachments, people seem to be enormously self conscious. Now, I don’t claim to be a stranger to self-consciousness about the attachments; I did enough research and asked enough questions beforehand that I knew I could opt out of having attachments on my lateral incisors (the teeth on either side of my “two front teeth”). I was not at all pleased when my doctor insisted on having attachments on my top eye teeth, but now I’m glad he did insist. The attachments aren’t as noticeable as I had feared, and my eye teeth really do need rotation; the left eye tooth is one of the teeth I find most aesthetically bothersome.

This process has led me to some conclusions about human nature. We all think that people are playing a hell of a lot more attention to us than they really are. Before I started the process to get Invisalign, I never noticed people’s teeth. Now, it’s one of the first things I notice about a person (because I’m currently obsessed with teeth as a result of this process.), but the majority of people aren’t paying close enough attention to see little bumps on my teeth. Lots of people have all kinds of crazy and funky things going on with their teeth (I know, because now I pay attention), but most people are too busy thinking about their own lives, their own concerns and their own self-conscious hang-ups to scrutinize my teeth, or anyone else’s for that matter. Even if they do notice the bumps (which are a lot less visible than ANY other type of braces, including the ones that go inside your teeth), they probably won’t register the fact long enough to care. This is coming from a person who works in a profession where my teeth are extremely visible. I talk and smile with people at close range when I’m dancing, and that’s a whole lot more teeth visibility than most people experience in their daily lives. If people don’t notice my attachments, whose are they going to notice? Perhaps if you need attachments on all your top front teeth, but again, they are so much less visible than even clear braces!

And so, in the wake of getting my attachments, I have taken a decidedly “embrace my braces!” attitude. As I mentioned above, I got my attachments put on halfway through my time wearing the third aligner. My teeth had already gone through the initial move, stopped aching and had grown accustomed to the third set when I got the attachments put on. After a day with the attachments and the same aligner, my left eye tooth (the protruding one) was hurting anew, so I know the attachments are doing important work that the aligners could not accomplish on their own. Again, this pain isn’t some excruciatingly traumatic event, it’s just initial soreness that abates after a day or so.

In sum, attachments aren’t as bad as everyone makes them out to be, most people aren’t paying as much attention to your teeth as you think they are, and I feel like I’m finally a full-fledged Invisalign patient! It doesn’t get any worse from here.

Summer DVDs

I don’t believe in paying for cable (so I don’t), I don’t own a working television (that’s not quite true; it’s unplugged, and I just don’t know how to hook up the digital antenna and analog converter) and I’m at work for the duration of prime time. And yet, one of my favorite pastimes is keeping up on current TV programs, a pursuit made possible by the delightful phenomenon of TV on DVD. Sure I’m always a season behind, but I get to avoid the commercials and the nail-biting wait between mid-season cliffhangers altogether!

Since I’m even too cheap for Netflix, I get my TV fix through the Carnegie Library system. It’s an imperfect system, certainly, but it renders almost precisely the same result as Netflix. Yes, I don’t get to decide which DVD I get right now, but when I put a hold on a DVD I get it eventually, and when I have enough holds out on DVD’s, then I always have something coming in. And when it’s in, I have the whole season and don’t have to wait for the next disk after I send the old one back.

As a result, I spend a fair bit of time mining the Amazon bestseller list for TV on DVD to find new things to order. Some of them turn out to be great favorites (like Burn Notice), some turn out to be watchably middle of the road (like the Mentalist), some of them get returned after one or two episodes (like Gossip Girl).

Rather than spend a whole review on each new show or season, which I do not have the time nor the the motivation to do, I figure I will occasionally write a survey piece on recent watchings to give a broad recommendation at a glance. Below you will find my most recent summer DVD adventures. These DVD’s don’t necessarily have anything to do with summer so much as they happened to be the DVD’s that arrived and got watched during the first half of my summer.

Men of a Certain Age, Season 1MEN OF A CERTAIN AGE

As a result of one of the most pleasant surprises in my recent DVD watching, I can honestly say I quite like Men of a Certain Age. When it first arrived from the library, I worried at first that a show about middle aged men might not be the best fit for a young professional woman, but I found a lot to enjoy and recommend about this show.

First of all, it’s character centered and character driven. It’s all about these three guys (Ray Romano, Andre Braugher and Scott Bakula) on the verge of turning 50 facing different life situations and dealing with those situations with various degrees of success. Their conflicts are realistic, their choices understandable and their friendship believable. Many shows have tried to create a “Sex and the City” for straight men (of course, my personal favorite, Queer as Folk, is the most authentic way to do Sex and the City for men), and I wouldn’t go so far as to say the Men of a Certain age accomplishes this feat–after all, sex is a sometime topic, but certainly not the controlling topic of their coffee shop conversation–but it definitely captures the dynamic of three male friends, and how that friendship helps inform the way they live their lives, in a realistic and entertaining way.

Perhaps the best part of this show is its humor. With the advent of cleverly written shows that skillfully encompass both comedic and dramatic elements, I find that I have grown weary of laugh-track comedies. Shows that exist for the sole purpose of getting laughs seem largely empty to me anymore. This program showcases more humor than the average drama, likely because Ray Romano is both producer and main actor, but it is done in an exemplary way. I never watched Everybody Loves Raymond when it was on the air, but I had enjoyed random snippets of Ray Romano’s comedy in the past (once when being interviewed at the wrap up of Everybody Loves Raymond, he was asked what he’ll do next, and replied, “Well, I am heir to the Romano cheese fortune”). The comedy in this show is witty, dry and never forced. Some jokes are so subtle that if you blink you might miss them. The comedy is clever and the show never beats you over the head with it. Even better, no laugh track in earshot!

The Good Wife, Season 1THE GOOD WIFE

The two times I’ve had The Good Wife out from the library, I’ve picked it up with some worry that it might be boring. It’s a show about a political wife who goes back to work in a law firm in her 40’s after her high-profile husband (a state’s attorney played by Chris Noth) goes to jail amid political scandal.

The wife is played by Julianna Margulies, and she plays a character who is admittedly kind of a cold fish. She deals with her inner struggles silently and uses an emotionless exterior to mask emotional turmoil. And yet, somehow Margulies finds a way to make this woman likable, relate-able and even morally ambiguous. She is faced with interesting problems, such as finding employment in the firm of a former law school buddy (who is now a partner, from having been in the game as long as she was out of it) as a junior associate and being pitted against another new hire, who is fresh out-of-school, in direct competition (played by Gilmore Girls alum Mark Czuchry). Instead of him being a typical nemesis, she finds she actually likes him and their relationship is realistically refreshing, characterized by shades of competitiveness, friendship and co-worker comrade-liness.

Ultimately what I like about this show is that it always surprises me by being more interesting than I expect it to be. Is it one of my very favorites? A show I find compulsively entertaining? No, but it is definitely worth my time and rings true with genuine conflicts and dilemmas for its characters.

Mad Men Season 4MAD MEN SEASON 4

I have been following Mad Men with steady but not avid interest on DVD since the first season. It’s hard to say exactly what intrigues me to keep watching Mad Men. Upon picking up Season 4 at the library, the Sharpsburg Librarian told me that she had lost interest after Season 2. I can’t say I don’t understand why. Mad Men is a character driven drama that is slow moving compared to the television dramas at the top of my list.

Yet, Mad Men has an undeniable appeal, both as a character study and as a near-past period piece. The milieu of the early 1960’s is enough familiar and enough foreign in to be its own draw. The political and social issues surrounding the characters are novel both for their relevance and their antiquated-ness–sort of a see how far we’ve come and yet how for we still have to do. The decor and costumes are like an old photo brought to life (in HD, moreover), the backdrop of history, out-dated social mores and commercial products (they are working in a ad agency, after all) add depth, and the character conflicts still ring true to the motivations of most audiences. I, personally, find Mad Men specifically interesting for its historical setting because my parents lived through those years, and they enjoy Mad Men and share with me their experiences and commentary about living through those times as a result of what they see on the show.

Season 4 was as interesting in these respects as any other season, but it was not what I would call a banner year. I figured, after the big upset at the end of season 3 (where every interesting character quit the old firm and started a new one), there would be a new status quo on Mad Men, but aside from a more “modern” looking office building, the ins and outs of the ad agency were basically the same. Season 4 skips ahead one whole year to a time where the new agency is already established. From there it is a relatively quiet season. Characters tackle personal and professional challenges, but nothing especially spectacular. The season ends quietly, too, with not cliffhanger or shake-up. Season 4 of Mad Men will certainly please devoted fans, but it didn’t take the show to any new levels of storytelling.

Weeds Season 6WEEDS SEASON 6

Weeds is another show that, when confronted with writing a review of it, has me wondering aloud, why exactly do I watch this show? I am, in no way a marijuana enthusiast. I suppose I like that its plots are character-driven. It does offer a good bit of sophisticated humor (and some unsophisticated, as well). One perfectly arbitrary thing I like about Weeds is that the show does 30 minute episodes; sometimes it’s nice to be able to squeeze in an episode to a short time period (including the span of time between when I finish dinner and when I inevitably start nodding off on the couch).

What I think I like about Weeds is that the characters are easy to relate to, and yet they often make decisions that ordinary folks wouldn’t make. This fact results in lead character Nancy Botwin getting into more than her fair share of trouble. Another thing I like about Weeds is that she always manages to get out of trouble (though, usually, from there, she gets into different trouble) by an avenue you wouldn’t expect. So many shows that rely on “character gets in trouble” plot-lines in order to create dramatic tension solve those plots in very predictable ways. If a character does the crime (even if that crime is making his wife mad), then that character does the time. This is one reason why I was never able to get into Curb Your Enthusiasm, because the humor of the show relies primarily on Larry David “getting in trouble” with various people and institutions and then getting his inevitable comeuppance. In Weeds, the characters get into all kinds of hairy situations, but then get out of them in surprising ways (which oftentimes represent the advent of an even hairier, but altogether different situation).

In this season, the cast and show grows a bit by going on the road (fleeing the results of their previous season’s debacle). They get out of their Southern California milieu and find themselves challenged by new situations, opening up the door for new plot-lines. I enjoyed this season more than the last couples seasons, which had grown, in my opinion, a little stagnant. Still watchable but not as interesting as they had been earlier in the series. And so, Weeds re-invents itself in small ways to make for an entertaining Season 6.

Braddock’s American Brasserie: Eh.

On the Fourth of July, Ted and I tried a new-to-us fine (semi-fine?) dining restaurant, Braddock’s American Brasserie & Streetside Bar. It’s the hotel restaurant and bar in the Renaissance Hotel downtown, and we had a Groupon. Our plan was to have dinner and then walk out and watch the fireworks. Braddock’s claims that its aim is to serve updated and upscaled meals based on the traditional cooking of Pittsburgh’s many early immigrant communities, and it also touts itself as having the largest selection of whiskeys of any bar in Pittsburgh. This sounded like a super set up.

The bar is separated from the restaurant proper by the hotel lobby (which is beautiful). I like this arrangement, because the noise from the bar doesn’t intrude on the dining room. The dining room itself was done up with big leather booths and dark walls, a sort of more cleanly lined take on old-school fancy restaurant decor. Including Ted and I, there were perhaps seven or eight tables. Ted noticed that despite the fact that the dining room was perhaps only one/fifth full, the three servers were running around frantically as though the place were packed – this was not a good omen, it turned out.

We spent a long time waiting for service with the menu and drink menu. They did have perhaps two or three dozen whiskeys on their list, but frankly, having recently been at McCormack’s Whisky Grill in Richmond, VA, and Village Whiskey in Philadelphia, the selection just wasn’t comparatively all that impressive. I ordered a Blanton’s, though, which I’ve had before and enjoyed.

It came with lipstick on the rim of the glass. Not just a whisper of gloss, either. Bold red lipstick stains, that the bartender and the server both should have noticed. I sent it back. I mean, come on, if I’m spending upwards of $15 on a pour of whiskey, the glass should be clean and sparkling.

The server was very apologetic and hurried a new glass back to me, though, so there was that. Then Ted and I ordered the cheese plate. Frankly, it was uninspired. There were six cheeses, one of which I could identify straight away as Beemster XO, which is a good cheese, but readily available at Giant Eagle – I like my cheese plate experiences to offer me something I can’t pick up readily at the grocery store. There was also a very young gouda that was bland and frankly had no business being on an upscale cheese plate. There were two good goat cheeses, but here we ran into another problem: the bread served with the tray was grilled in garlic butter. Now, don’t get me wrong, I like a nice buttery garlic bread. But the flavor of the bread itself completely overwhelmed the subtle tastes of the soft, light goat cheeses. So we asked for more bread, plain.

Here commences a 20-minute wait for bread.

The server came over and apologized after about seven minutes; he apologized again when the bread finally came out after twenty. Guys: it’s fucking bread. How on earth could it take 20 fucking minutes to get me some plain baguette slices? Honestly – how?

Shortly afterward, our entrees came. Ted ordered the special, swordfish steak served with roasted roma tomatoes and a hearty rice pilaf. I ordered the “Housemade Potato Gnocchi and Lobster,” described as coming with “three types of mushrooms, artichokes, and parmesan cream sauce”.

The food was less bad than it was incompetent. Ted’s roasted tomatoes were very good, the tomato flavor being nicely condensed by the roasting and flavored with olive oil. His pilaf was a nice blend of heartier rices, but it was underseasoned. His swordfish was also dreadfully underseasoned, as well as overcooked.

On my plate, the gnocchi themselves were excellent, perhaps the best I’ve had – they were buttery, hearty without being starchy, semi-soft and just generally deliciously potato-y. But then things went awry. For one thing, there were absolutely no artichokes – perhaps they got lost wherever the bread went missing. The cream sauce was fine, delicately flavored, though noting noteworthy; the lobster was dropped onto the dish in artless chunks, but otherwise fine. But then the mushrooms – oh, the mushrooms. There were a million of them, heaped over all the rest of the dish, and their strong umami taste completely overwhelmed the light cream sauce and delicate lobster flavor. It was just a terrible idea – who put this dish together? I tried a gnocchi with a bite of Ted’s roasted tomato and it was excellent. Braddock’s – simplify. Since clearly, when you try to get “fancy” you go awry. (Of course, how simple is a rice pilaf and a fish steak, and that, too, went awry. So … I don’t know what to tell you.)

With my meal I had a glass of wine, a $13 pinot noir that was fine, but nothing to write home about – Braddock’s wine list, in fact, was not particularly impressive at all. Ted had a cocktail of whiskey and fresh muddled berries that he liked a lot. We took a look at the bar menu, and it seemed to have simpler fair, sandwiches and moules frites. Perhaps we should have taken our Groupon to the Streetside Bar.

We won’t be returning to Braddock’s. The whiskey list the bar touts doesn’t stack up to other whiskey bars I’ve been to, and the wine list was dismal compared to what I’d expect for a restaurant holding itself out as traditional fine dining. The kitchen was incompetent during our visit, both in terms of getting our food out to us, and in the composition and execution of the dishes. There were a few quality moments in the meal, but at Braddock’s prices, they simply weren’t worth it. Even discounting our $40 Groupon, our meal, with two drinks apiece, one appetizer, and two entrees came in at $107. At this price point, any of the upscale Big Burrito restaurants – Eleven, Soba, Casbah – is a much better, tastier dining experience, and you can have much better food for much less money at Point Brugge or (the BYOB) Piccolo Forno, to name just two better values off the top of my head.

The fireworks were nice, though.

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