Thursday, July 22, 2010

[Review] Food Matters by Mark Bittman

Mark Bittman is one of the greatest cooking writers ever. He's a weekly columnist for the New York Times, but I know him best and originally as the author of the amazing How to Cook Everything. How to Cook Everything basically taught me how to cook. In it, he runs through everything from the very basics of how to stock a kitchen and how to cut vegetables to how to prepare complex roasts, full dinners, and more. Pretty close to anything you'd want a recipe for is in there, except pasta salad which he seems to think is an abomination and forbids you from ever preparing. The writing style is plain and accessible, and its a book I recommend to anyone looking to learn how to cook or who wants a great omnibus of recipes available.

Food Matters, on the other hand, is a bit of a different beast. It has a few recipes, about 75, that focus mostly on very basic cooking--preparing cooked beans, grains, boiled and steamed veggies, simple sauces, and then a few dozen recipes for each meal that tend toward simple combination of the basics that can be rapidly prepared. The focus of the recipes is on things that can be prepared quickly and/or in bulk that are composed primarily of complex carbohydrates, fresh fruits and vegetables, and very small amounts of meat and dairy.

The reason for this strange set of recipes is explained in the first half of the book. Bittman appeared on the Colbert Report a last year to discuss this philosophy. Basically his food consumption ideas aren't new, but focus on the "vegan until 6pm" and "only eat foods with less than four ingredients" ideas. His book focuses on showing you you can eat a diet that is very high in vegetables and complex carbohydrates and very low in animal products and processed food with minimal effort, and still produce satisfying food quickly. His points are that our current diet cuases health problems ranging from heart disease to diabetes to obesity, and that this is due both to high calorie, low nutrition foods (chips and MacDonald's and Twinkies) and to too large a proportion of our diet being high fat animal products. This diet is also awful environmentally in terms of both energy consumption and waste production, pointing out not only the old standard of lb of meat taking a dozen or so pounds of grain to produce, but that all these processed foods and factory farmed meat take a huge amount of petroleum and energy to make. Eating like "food matters" allows you to both improve your health, lower your risk of long term diseases, and lose weight, all while helping the environment.

I do have a few major issues with the philosophy portion of the book. Bittman seems to have a problem with low carb, high protein diets that's based more in his anti-meat environmentalism than in actual fact. I myself gave a low carb diet a try over the last year (specifically the Men's Health TNT Diet) and lost weight, gained muscle, and my cholesterol dropped 15% (and the good went up as the bas went down.) I've since adapted to a more sustainable some-carb diet, and gained back a bit of weight but overall feel pretty good. The advantage to a high protein diet is that protein and fat, while high caloric density, have a high satiety factor, so a couple strips of bacon or a couple eggs in the morning leave me feeling full until early afternoon, while a couple donuts leave me hungry again almost right away.

Epidemiology on diet is very difficult, and lab results don't always translate into real world results. This was the major flaw in low-fat diets--that and that the whoel fat reduction then "bad fat" reduction would reduce cholesterol and thus heart disease was a (reasonable) deduction based on the observation that heart disease is correlated with high cholesterol. Except it turns out that most cholesterol is synthesized by the body, not absorbed from food, that lowering cholesterol intake doesn't tend to have that much of an effect on blood cholesterol, and that cholesterol is correlated with heart disease, but not causative (see Vioxx, which lowered cholesterol but not heart disease and increased stroke risk).

However, recent meta reviews show that, in fact, high protein low carb diets work better than anything else in reducing cholesterol and weight up to one year. Bittman addresses this in his book, but dismisses these results with a well, i'm sure it has long term negative effect stance with no evidence to back it up. Further, he does this immediately after he basically mocks people who dismissed the results of a study that showed low fat diets don't improve health on the evidence-free assumption that everyone on the diet cheated. It is very intellectually disingenuous, and when he dismisses studies that don't support his worldview it heavily undermines his criticism of others.

He also, almost randomly, rails agains the pharmaceutical industry and its "scientist for hire." Which, as one of those people who do science in exchange for a paycheck, I found more than a little insulting. The insinuation was that none of us industry scientists can be trusted cause our sinister bosses pay us and demand we thus falsify results. I at least consider myself a moral and ethical person. Also, there are a lot of good things to come out of the pharmaceutical industry...and also also, I have no idea why he kept ranting about pharmaceutical companies in a book about food, except that he was somehow lumping together government agencies, the food industry and the pharmaceutical industry into one big pile of evil corporatism that is destroying America's health. I found the screed parts of the book to detract greatly from his very good points about the health and environmental impact of the way we currently eat, and could turn a lot of people off to that message.

Overall I wish he had been more neutral, and less dismissive of studies that contradicted his viewpoints. I do like the recipes and the practical tips on cooking and eating right, and have integrated some this into my current diet. Bittman agrees with the low-carb folks that veggies and complex carbohydrates (whole grains) are better than high starch foods are better than high sugar foods are better than processed, sugar added foods. They mostly disagree on the relative proportions of complex carbs vs protein. Bitmman's tips on bulk preparation, what can be frozen and how to eat well while working full time are definitely worth it, and his views are interesting (if occasionally offensive) to read. But I can guarantee I'll be going to How to Cook Everything a lot more often than Food Matters.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

[Review] Middleman, the Complete Series (TV, DVD)

Middleman is a one season long TV series that aired on ABC Family in 2008, based on the comic book series of the same name. The comic, if i understand the story correctly, was created based on a TV pilot a writer on Lost had produced in the mid 00's, which then got turned back into a TV show driected at sassy teenagers for ABC Family. I was originally confused as to the network, because I think i had heard it was on Disney, and expected a kids show, but the show as produced has a surprising amount of (bleeped) profanity and lots of angsty young adult relationship/crush/flirtation stuff. But apparently ABC Family is actually going for sassy-mouthed faux-worldly teen aged girls, so that's why this show stars a sassy-mouthed faux-worldly college aged girl. But I digress.

The show is at its heart, one of those stories about the supernatural and/or superheroes actually being real in the real world. As in many of these, the main hero/investigator role is played by a tall handsome slightly older man (in this case, The Middleman (Matt Keaslar)) who is accompanied by his attractive, younger, sexy but not in a sexual relation ship with the tall handsome investigator guy (here, Wendy Watson, aka "dub-dub" (Natale Morales, who is in fact, ridiculously hot)). There are quite a few pairs like this: Mulder and Scully of course, any number of Doctor-companion pairs, Harry Dresden and Molly Carpenter, Angel and Cordelia, Plausibly HRG and the Cheerleader, and so forth. The Middleman is also one of those many modern deconstruction of the superhero type shows that occupy meta space in the same universe as the Tick, Venture Brothers and Dr. Horrible. Though I found it to have met the Dr. Venture metaverse halfway with the Dresden Files, as there is a lot more magic and demons and such than in most meta-superhero shows.

The Middleman is only the most current in a long line of Middlemen, the only apparent superhero in a world where all the most bizarre comic-book style threats to humanity are real. Villains with horribly over-elaborate superscience based plans they like to monologue about ("It's sheer elegance in its simplicity!") alien invasions, ancient resurrected Chinese emperors and thousands of ways for the earth to be destroyed on a daily basis. All that stands between us and all this crazy crap is the Middleman, assisted by his android sidekick IDA and, as of the start of the series, his sassy-mouthed Middleman in training, Wendy. The Middleman is funded and kept in cool gadgets by the OTSTK (Organization too secret to know) and the various fancy computers and shit keep a steady supply of plot solving god boxes on hand.

The series has some good ideas at its core, and can at times be fun. But overall, I found it kind of meh. It's problematic that this show messes around in well explored territory--the above mentioned interpersonal dynamic between the main characters and the meta-superheroes are real setting--but doesn't really add anything new to it. Part of my lack of enthusiasm comes from the overly simple characterizations of all these main characters. The Middleman is an absurdly straight laced Dudley Do-right type who's always a gentleman, watches only westerns, and drinks milk all the time. Wendy is the never phased by anything, too cool for school, always wisecracking nerdy hot girl. Her roommate exists to be a sexpot, her upstairs neighbor's purpose is to be the dick, and her boyfriend is there to be kind of cute and also spout more bantery dialogue. Pretty much all the dialogue on the show is constantly delivered with a grin and a wink, and that kind of ruins a lot of it...there is a great deal of character back and forth witticism reminiscent of old noir banter, but in a modern context, except the constant sarcastic winking at the audience tone makes it not really work for me. Or possibly the actors don't have the chops to make it work, I'm not sure.

The plots themselves are way silly, often too silly for a "Superheroes are real" plot line. Except, I could see the gun toting, mob-movie watching super-intelligent gorilla working on the Tick, or the Mexican-wrestler mask sporting Japanese Sensei Ping working as a character in the Venture Brothers, or the noirish reformed succubus Roxy Wasserman working in a Dresden Files novel. But things don't quite ever click on the Middleman. I'd find my self sort of getting into the show, but easily distracted due to slow pacing, or growing irritation with the overly sassy dialogue, and maybe a bit of eye rolling at the just slightly too absurd for its own universe plots. I feel a lot of the problem comes with combing thinly drawn caricature based characters with a "comic-books are real" vibe--in order to make it work, we have to feel the characters could be real people.

In the end, I think I've just seen this plot too many times before to be excited by it. You can rent the DVD's from netflix, and if you're into comic book plots, its not a bad way to pass the time. But given the choice, I'd rather watch the Venture Bros. again.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

King Herod

This summer I have landed the role of King Herod in MIT MTG's production of Jesus Christ Superstar. I'm pretty excited about this since I've wanted to do this role for a long time. I'm working my way through all the biggest d-bags in theater, and Herod is high on that list. Plus, not getting this role the last time this group did the show (about a million years ago) is pretty much why I started taking voice lessons, so it's all come full circle.

Herod as depicted in the show and in the bible (Matthew, Mark and Luke) is Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great. Herod the Great was a strong and totally batshit insane Jewish king, who was known for things such as expanding and renovating the Temple into opulence and also having his own family executed. Herod the Great is the Herod who orders the Massacre of the Innocents, described in Matthew chapter 2, in order to get rid of the one who was born King of the Jews and might thus take his throne.

See, in addition to being insane, the Heroditans had a problem. Their legitimacy was pretty shaky--for starters, Herod the Great was a convert to Judaism. Second, his line was installed as tetrarchs in Judea, basically for having correctly picked the winning side in the Octavian vs Antony throwdown in Rome. Judea's provinces were vassal states of the Roman Empire during this time, and were ruled both by a Roman governor and a local tetrarch. Appointing a ruler from the local population who was loyal to Rome was a common strategy for the Romans, allowing each region the illusion of self-governance. But for the Jews, legitimacy was in question due to Herod's problematic religious background, and further because he had a tendency for ostentatiousness, which orthodox Jews would have frowned on.

For Herod Antipas it would have been even worse. His dad was a convert. His mom was a Samaritan. His crazy dad killed all the elder heirs, and then divided up judea between his surviving sons in his will. Herod went to Rome to try to sleaze his way into being sole heir, but ended up only with Galilee and Peraea. Herod built a new capital, Tiberius, in honor of the emperor. Of course, he build it on a Jewish graveyard, and no Jews would enter the city. He divorced his first wife to marry his brother's hot widow, which irritated the Jewish priesthood. Josephus, the Jewish historian, writes of how terrified Herod was of John the Baptist's popular support, and that he killed him out of fear. While Josephus is silent on Jesus, the Gospels indicate Herod basically feared that Jesus was John the Baptist somehow back from the dead, and viewed him as serious a threat to the throne.

Herod and Pilate didn't get along, and some historians think this is because Pilate had put to death a number of rebellious Galileans without consulting him. This act upset Herod, who considered that his jurisdiction. So when, in the bible/show Pilate gets a hold of Jesus, but doesn't want to be responsible for executing a man he viewed as basically harmless, he throws him to Herod to let Herod try him (Jesus being from Galilee).

I also think in the context of the Pharisee plot as presented in Jesus Christ Superstar, this was a move by pilate to shift Jesus' crime from that of treason against Rome, punishable by crucifixion, to blasphemy against the Jewish God, a crime under Jewish but not Roman law. If Herod determines that Jesus is guilty of blasphemy, he'll be punished by the laws of Galilee--I don't know what this would have been, since of course the Bible advocates stoning for acts like claiming you're the son of god, but the show implies non-fatal (corporal punishment or exile, i guess).

My take on Herod's Song, which presents King Herod mocking Jesus before sending him back to Pilate, is that Herod intended to find Jesus guilty of this crime, accepting Pilate's piece offering, and letting Jesus live, basically. Well, he'd probably actually acquit Jesus if he performed miracles-as-parlor-tricks like he demands, but Jesus clearly won't do that. What Herod is looking for is for Jesus to grovel and/or burst into tears, beg for Herod's forgiveness and accept Herod as the King of the Jews. Remember Herod almost certainly saw Jesus, like John the Baptist, as a threat during the height of his ministry, so the chance to humiliate Jesus before the court and prove that he's just a pathetic street preacher with no claim to the throne.

Of course, Jesus neither begs for forgiveness nor puts on a magic show. Herod gets pissed that Jesus isn't palying hsi part, so, unfortunetly for Pilate, throws him back to the Roman court, essentially declaring that Jesus's crime is temporal and against Rome, inciting rebellion and laying claim to the throne given to Herod by the Emperor. This sticks Pilate with having to put Jesus to death to appease the locals.

But apparently Pilate and Herod became the bestest of friends after the trial of Jesus, so there's a happy ending!