Saturday, October 29, 2011

All in One

Whether you use a slow cooker or a casserole dish, the idea is to put a bunch of different ingredients together into one pot, let them cook and serve it up to a hungry audience. Normally you take care to pick certain ingredients, carefully balancing the tastes and textures so just the right flavors come through, and even though it's all coming out of the same pot, there is definition to what you're eating. That is, unless you're Kentucky Fried Chicken.

More specifically, you used to be Kentucky Fried Chicken. Now you're KFC, a nod to both a snappier and shorter tag, along with the realization that these days "fried" is a four-letter word. Admittedly, back when Harland "Colonel" Sanders started the chain it seemed like a name for the ages. But just as Radio Shack no longer sells radios and tries hard not to look like a shack, its hard sometimes to escape your own history.

Regardless of what you call it, the mainstays are still there. Fried chicken, along with the traditional sides like mashed potatoes, corn and gravy. Each is still available to sooth those southern tastebuds that even Yankees have. And there is might have stayed. But then somebody in the R&D department had an idea: What if they put it all together? After all, people are ordering the items separately, so why not save them a step? Not as a Value Meal or Dinner Box or All-In-One, where you package each separate item together is a single carrier. No, I mean really together, as in a casserole. Only they don't have casserole, so they opted for a bowl. And voila', the KFC Famous Bowl was born.

As described on the company website, they start with a "generous serving of our creamy mashed potatoes, layered with sweet corn." Then because two starches are not enough, they added breaded, fried chicken and "drizzle it all with our signature home-style gravy, topped off with a shredded three-cheese blend." And that's the old version. As of this month, you can add bacon on top as well, because as they say in their ad campaign, "everything is better with bacon". Hard to argue with their tag line, "It's all your favorite flavors coming together."

And what a together it is. But it's not the calories (680) or the total fat (31 gms) or even the sodium (2130 mgs) that troubling here, though you can take issue with any of those numbers (and those are all before they add the bacon, which probably adds another 60 calories and a bunch more fat and salt). And it wouldn't be fair not to point out that the chain, like every other one out there, does offer healthier alternatives like salads and grilled chicken. But let's face it: you don't go to KFC to get a yogurt. You go to get fried chicken. Whether or not you go into cardiac arrest after chowing down is between you, your doctor and the Colonel, but it's not like you don't know what you're getting yourself into when you open the door.

Rather, it's the idea of dumping it all into one bowl that's troubling. Yes, some foostuffs are natural compliments: pancakes and syrup, peanut butter and jelly, bagels and cream cheese. But the idea of just layering up virtually every item in the palce and eating them with a spoon starts to sound suspiciously like reverting to baby food, where mom creamed it all together to hide the vegetables. Perhaps its best summed up by Eric Trinidad writing in The Huffington Post: "I felt like I should only be having this when recovering from dental surgery, or if I'm being spoon-fed in a hospital. Have Americans gotten so lazy that we'll just put everything in a bowl and eat it like horses going to a trough?" In fairness, though, he also notes, this: "At the same time, there's something awesome about living in a country that gives us that option."

When I was growing up there was an ice cream place near us that had a special we got only when there was a bunch of us. They took a scoop of every flavor they had, and added every topping available. It was a big gloopy mess, and the name said it all: "A Pig's Dinner." Now I'm sure that the marketing department at KFC thought that "Famous Cheesy Bacon Bowl" had a better chance of bringing them in that that moniker. But especially with the bacon on top, this silk purse is indeed a sow's ear.


Marc Wollin of Bedford likes fried chicken, though we rarely eats it. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, the Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Bordeaux on the Hudson

Back a dozen or so years ago, when work was slow and things were tough, Greg and his wife had a routine to escape the malaise. They would drop their then toddler off at her grandparents, and head to a local vineyard. There they would get a bottle and a couple of glasses, and sit outside looking over the hills. Amid sips and stares, things didn't look so bad, and they could imagine a better future. And wouldn't it be fun, they mused, if that future might someday include a vineyard of their own, where they could repeat the experience with a vino of their own vintage.

Several years later when they were checking out a new home, they discovered a bonus. Formerly owned by an old Italian gentlemen, the house had a patio with a pergola, an open topped frame that helped to define the space and kept things cooler in the summer. And what was growing up and around the structure? Not just any vines, but grapevines loaded with fruit suitable for corking.

Greg describes it as the quintessential case of be careful what you wish for. When I talked to him the other day, he was only too happy to chat: "I need a break from the harvest." For that erstwhile dream a dozen years ago has blossomed into an all-consuming hobby, one like any other that has its benefits and drawbacks.

"We grow about 200 pounds of grapes a year, in two varieties," he told me. The first is Catawba, a red grape that they use to produce a white wine. The other is Cesar, a notoriously fickle grape that produces a dark, tannic wine that is usually softened by blending with a Pinot Noir. "Other than the fact that we grow a difficult grape in the wrong soil and in the wrong climate, it's a piece of cake," he said.

Once picked, they have to squeeze out the juice. Like many non-wine making consumers, my only frame of reference is Lucy stomping around in a big vat. Greg just laughed: "Two things about that. One, grape stems are pretty sharp, and it actually hurts to step on them. And second, would you want to drink anything my feet stomped on? Yes, the alcohol produced would kill off anything harmful, but it's not a pretty picture."

Rather than go the Lucy route, he uses a stainless steel system that handles the processing, and has the added benefit of not turning his feet purple. And literally, there is a bright spot at the end. "I've always wanted a Ferrari," says Greg, "and my corker is made by a company called Ferrari. I still hope someday to have a sleek, red one, but for now this will do."

The math works out this way: 200 pounds of grapes yields about 19 gallons of liquid, which equates to about 95 bottles of wine. I asked him about any tax implications: do the "revenuers" of the government come looking for their cut? Turns out that federal law says that you can make up to 200 gallons a year for personal use. "But that's like a thousand bottles of wine, which equals about 3 bottles a day per person. Now, that's some serious drinking."

Of course, the test is in the tasting. "In our case, we let it mellow for about a year. It softens it, and creates a better flavor." They play with the process and the time a bit, seeing how they can tweak it to make it better. Greg says it will never ripen into a "colossal Bordeaux," but it's fun and it's drinkable. "What we get tends to be very dry, very alcoholic, and after a couple of glasses, starts to taste not too bad."

As to the name they bestow on their creation, they keep it simple: "We call it Plonk Blanc and Plonk Rouge." I looked up "plonk." It's an "unspecific and derogatory term in British and Australian English for wine that is notably inexpensive or judged to be of poor quality." Rather, in this case, it's Greg's homage to his favorite London Barrister, Horace Rumpole. After a long day at the old Bailey, Rumpole would stop into Pomeroy's Wine Bar for a glass of the "House Plonk - Chateau Thames Embankment."

But there's another way of looking at it as well. UK journalist Max Davidson equates plonk with "youth, excess, self-indulgence in times of penury. Forget grown-up wine. With plonk, the sweetest bouquet of all is the taste of a few pence saved." On that note, Greg, I raise my glass.


Marc Wollin of Bedford can't say he knows much about wine beyond that he likes it. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, the Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, October 15, 2011

It's Not Butter

We try to do the right thing, we really do. We eat lots of salad, and throw in beans and fruit as kickers. We have cut down on our consumption of beef to almost nothing, and fish shows up on the table at least once a week. Our pasta is whole grain, our milk is 1% and our bread has so much fiber in it you could use it in place of wallboard.

Not that I'm complaining. I know it's all good for me, and assuming I don't get hit by a bus tomorrow, it will hopefully let me live longer with fewer problems. That's not to say I'm a nutritional saint. I still have a weakness for peanut butter cups and strawberry Twizzlers. If I'm working late, I'm likely to grab a chain store hamburger for the ride home. And especially when I go on the road, I have a tendency to eat stupider, partly as a reward to myself for the disruption to my routine, partly because I am likely to be eating alone and the only person to disapprove of my dietary choices is me, and I forgive myself very quickly.

However, in our home, even I've willingly made the turn. While my wife makes it a point to shop for healthier alternatives for us both, be it low fat yogurt or brown rice or egg white substitute, I've made major sacrifices in my own convoluted personal dietary world. I've all but given up on cookies. I'm happy with a piece of fresh fruit, especially if it's been chilled a bit in the refrigerator. And I have cut down on my ice cream consumption to once in a blue moon. It may not sound like much, but we're talking sea change here.

But I think we've gone a butter too far.

It's not like we eat a lot of it, either. We usually have a stick in the fridge and a pound or so in the freezer, but it's almost exclusively used for cooking and baking. For everyday consumption, like shmearing on a piece of whole grain, low carb, high fiber toast (yum!), we have tubs of spreadable stuff. I say stuff, because I couldn't actually tell you the brand we used. It's some well-known combination of processed oils enriched with a panoply of Greek lettered vitamins, minerals and acids that they tell me are not just good for me but "essential" to my health. What I can tell you is that it is vaguely butter-esque. That, and yellow.

But the latest product of modern food chemistry to show up on our fridge goes by the name of Smart Balance Light. On the outside, it's a variation of the usual sunny looking container that is de rigueur in the "buttery flavored spread" category. And the product itself it's a little less canary than some of the others, with a tone a bit closer to taupe, though not alarmingly so. But appearances aside, it all comes down to taste. Now, perhaps there are those of you reading this that swear by this delicacy, that find it creamy and delicious, that can't wait to pop open a container and slather your whole wheat bagel. Let the record show that I am not in your camp.

It begins with a consistency more akin to spackle: spreadable is not an adjective I'd use to describe it. Perhaps our fridge is too cold, but even when applied to bread fresh from the toaster, I have to use a disconcerting amount of elbow grease to move it around the surface. As to taste, there basically is none. No butter, no cream, nothing. The best that can be said of it is that it greases the bread, making it easier to swallow. And while there's something to be said for a slogan like "lubricates your food," it's not drawing me in.

I'm all for healthy living. I'm willing to make diet and lifestyle changes that in the aggregate will help me live longer and better. And I'm happy to try new products with an open mind towards improvement, whether they be consumable by the eyes, ears or mouth. But just as I have no desire to watch Star Wars on my smartphone, I have no desire to eat something healthy that has no taste appeal. My mom and a thousand scientists have said everything is fine in moderation. So at least for me and my light wheat, multigrain English muffin, the only smart balance is just a little bit of butter.


Marc Wollin of Bedford tries to eat healthy, most of the time. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, the Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, October 08, 2011

No, You're Not Sorry

My hotel room in Los Angeles had a nice view of the valley, and I had a fresh cup of coffee. I had just settled in to work when I heard a loud "CLICK," then silence. The lights went out, the air conditioner went off and the clock next to my bed went blank. It took me a moment to process what was happening. Yes, I had just come from the hurricane ravaged east, and was used to dealing with power outages and such. But this was Southern California. It was 10AM on a Wednesday, the sun was shining and I was in the middle of the city. No way the power could be out. Could it?

I opened the door and stuck my nose out into the hall. Sure enough, it was dim, lit only by emergency lighting. A maintenance guy was walking by, so I asked the obvious question: "Did we just lose power?" He shook his head. "Yes sir, it seems that way." Was it anything he did? I thought perhaps he was working on the floor, and cut it to fix something. He shook his head. "No sir, nothing we did. I'm so sorry for the inconvenience."

Now, I understand the service ethos that drove the comment. I'm sure he was sorry in the abstract for any hassle it caused me. And if it was the hotel that was the locus of the problem, he was stepping up as its representative and taking the blame. But at that moment the chain of cause and effect hadn't been established. Still, it was a nice thing to say.

I retreated back into my room and looked out the window. No lights in adjoining buildings, no traffic signals: it was a Beverly Hills blackout. The phone, which obviously was still working, rang. I picked it up to find a member of the front desk staff confirming it was indeed a utility issue, and not building specific. No, she had no idea what caused it. No, she didn't know how long it would last. Anything she could do for me, she asked. And then concluded like her associate in the hall: "Sir, we are so sorry for this."

But to be clear, neither could actually apologize because they didn't cause the affront. After all, the very definition of the word is "an expression of remorse or guilt over having said or done something that is acknowledged to be hurtful or damaging, and a request for forgiveness." Even if you go back to a more classical formulation, it doesn't line up. Apology derives from the Greek "apologia," which translates as a defense, or a speech made in defense. Mr. Maintenance and Ms. Front Desk didn't cause the blackout, so there should be no remorse to express, nor actions to defend.

It's just that those in the customer service field have learned that a sympathetic "I'm sorry" is the fastest and most surefire way to get a leg up, so much so that virtually every interaction with a disgruntled customer starts that way. Guilt or blame has nothing to do with it. Rather, it's a preemptive strike designed to defuse the situation, regardless of who is the aggrieved party and who is the agriever. I'm sorry for the difficulties you had when overdrawing your account. I'm sorry the item arrived after her birthday since you waited too long to order it. I'm sorry the size you ordered doesn't fit your big butt. I'm sorry you're a moron. Really. I'm very sorry.

Now admittedly, the apology trend is better than alternative. In the old days, the blame was squarely on you. It was a criminal justice system whereby you were guilty until there was incontrovertible proof you were innocent. That evolved into a stalemate best described as the "there's no problem here, don't even think of mentioning it or I will just glare at you" approach.  And now here we are today, where rule number one is that the customer is always right, and rule number two is if the customer is wrong, see rule number one.

But perhaps the pendulum has swung a little too far. These days we apologize preemptively when we think there might be any disagreement:  "I'm sorry, but I think ‘Modern Family' is a better show than ‘The Office.'" Other than in politics, where the word doesn't seem to exist, we seem to take pains to not offend even when we aren't. Put another way, perhaps Elton John was wrong; "sorry" does not seem to be the hardest word.


Marc Wollin of Bedford always seems to be apologizing, though he's often not sure for what. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, the Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Touch of Zen

If I said "Touch of Zen" to you, you might think of the 1971 movie with Billy Chan, Ying Bai and Ping-Yu Chang, the inspiration for such later gems as "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." Or you might think of the store in West Islip, NY that sells martial arts equipment. Then there's the health club and massage parlor in Walnut Hills, CA, the floral arrangement with bamboo by Buds, Blooms and Beyond in Tampa FL, or perhaps the salon in Albuquerque, NM. But odds are you wouldn't think of me and my cell phone.

Yet, increasingly, that's where I find myself. In a time when everything is faster, at our fingertips, always connected, I find myself having to practice the ancient of art of meditation when I want to make a call, look up an address or enter something in my calendar. Want me to Google the name of the movie where Harrison Ford gets amnesia after being involved in a robbery? Patience, Grasshopper.

It's not supposed to be like this. Whether your preferred eco-system is Android or Apple, whether you have a shiny device from LG or Motorola, whether you have a 3G phone or a 4G LTE smartphone or a 7Q giga-nano-hyper smarterphone, information in today's world is supposed to be like Chinese food: it's there before you order it. Like just-in-time manufacturing, when you turn and reach for it is supposed to be at your fingertips. If you do it right, you shouldn't even have to break stride as you walk down the street, punching up the closest organic taco place, knowing that your order with the burrito with local jack cheddar will hit the counter as you walk in the door.

And then there's me. Short of being an engineer, I consider myself a fairly well-informed geek. I have a holistic picture of how devices work, how to tweak them to make them work better and how to fix them when they have issues. And so to fix my particular device, which once was as speedy as a rocket ship and now has more in common with a tricycle, the person I would likely turn to for help is someone like me.

Yes, I understand that my phone is two years old, which in smartphone-dog years means it may as well be hand cranked. And I know I have downloaded and installed my fair share of dumb programs that take up space and bandwidth, be it the "Steamy Window" ap that coast my screen with "steam" like it's in the shower, or the "Obama Camera" that inserts the president into any picture you take. But I also know how to kill said stupids and run the thing lean and mean, so that those distractions and others are distant memories, and not memory hogs.

So I'm at a loss as to why my phone is crawling. From the time I wake it up to when I holster it in frustration, every action requires a deliberate press and wait. Let's say I want to check my phone log to see if I missed any important calls while in the subway. I do my secret pattern to unlock the phone: wait 10 seconds. I press the phone icon to get to the next menu: 10 seconds more. I press the log button: yes, 10 seconds. Digital is supposed to be on or off, much like being pregnant: you either are or you aren't, there's no middle ground. I would understand better if the phone didn't work at all. But it's hard to convince me that the bits and bytes are feeling their age, and are taking longer to go from here to there.

And so I wait. I press and I wait. I look around, check the weather, then look down to see if I can take the next step. I press again. I watch the people, check the traffic. I press again. I wonder what my wife is thinking of for dinner. Then I look down, and see the entry of the person I wanted to call. I press the screen, and think whether I need to stop by the bank as it connects. I mean, what other choice do I have? My upgrade doesn't kick in for a month or so. That means unless I want to pay $1825 for a new phone which will shortly cost me less than $200, I have no options. Excuse me, there is one more: throw it against the wall, then dance merrily on the splintered remains while screaming obscenities at the top of my lungs.

Patience, Grasshopper.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is counting the days till his "new-in-two" benefit kicks in. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, the Scarsdale Inquirer and online at