Archive for the 'review' Category

Review: Tackle Box, With a Side of Overdue Research

The Wednesday before last I had dinner at the Tackle Box with a visiting Uncle.  Technically a first cousin once-removed by marriage, but let’s leave it at uncle.  He emailed a few days in advance requesting good seafood, and I found out about them through WaPo’s restaurant guide- best-reviewed not-gaspingly-expensive seafood restaurant in DC.

Perspective:  I don’t like fish.  Well, live ones that I have to look at or let be anywhere near me.  Fish are ugly and slimy and might bite me.  In theory, I’m ok with living fish far away from me.   I’m usually happy if they’re fried in chunks without visible fish-resembling portions.  And I just finished reading Taras Grescoe’s Bottomfeeder before I left for NZ, which describes plenty of the incredibly destructive and disgusting ways most seafood is raised and harvested around the world.  More on this later.  In conclusion, eating seafood was daunting before, and now I find it possibly revolting.

Still, I happen to like this Uncle, so seafood it was.  Luckily, the Tackle Box (a less ritzy version of it’s big-sister restaurant Hook) has a big old section of their website devoted to their sustainable fishing practices, with earnest promises that they source local and smaller fishing operations and change their menu based on availability, etc.

I don’t know of any way to make sure it’s true.  That’s one intimidating thing about seafood- oversight from the fisherman to the table is more often than not lax, and fish are often labelled incorrectly.  But their website does sound earnest, and a little googling doesn’t reveal any scandals.  So, tentative trust, Tackle Box?

I had the bluefish with the sweet potato fries and asparagus.  I enjoyed the asparagus- crisp enough, well flavored, and the sweet potato fries could have been less oily, but were pretty good anyway.  Bluefish tasted fine, had some pleasing darker portions of meat.  Again I have no real fish experience with anything but fried slabs of the stuff, so don’t rely on my palate.  Uncle seemed to like it.

Afterwards (tonight), I looked up the species to see about overfishing issues.  I started at Wikipedia, but that was silly of me:  if you want to know more about fish that are safe and sustainable for your eating pleasure, go straight to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch site.  They keep close tabs on this stuff, and they say Bluefish are a “Good Alternative” in their rating system- though they are overfished in the Atlantic and they contain lots of toxins, beign at the higher end of the food chain.  Whoops.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium rates fish choices as Best Choice, Good Alternative, or Avoid- and you can print out their pocket guides here or check out their website on your fancy internet phones.  A better choice at the Tackle Box would have been the tilapia- if it was farmed in the US.  Or the trout, if it were US-farmed Rainbow Trout and not so much the wild-caught lake trout.  The staff seemed very nice and informed- go ahead and ask them.

The more you know, hunh?  I’m printing out a guide for the next time Uncle comes into town.

Review: Karen Dionne’s “Freezing Point”

A few months (a lifetime) ago, I received a review copy of Karen Dionne’s Freezing Point.  Ms. Dionne also sent me a swag chapstick, if you recall?  It was excellent chapstick-quite worthy of the book with which it came.

The novel centers around Ben and Zo, two idealists who have moved beyond their most starry-eyed phases.  Ben is an executive in a global corporation, selling water for profit.  Zo and her husband are researchers in an Antarctic base.  A cracking ice shelf, a mysterious disease, and entirely too many rats later, they discover a common cause.

Dionne’s basic premises resonate- the privatization of water resources and the unintended consequences of messing with nature- and give this light thriller a weightier backbone.  Her plotting is plausible and only occasionally overwrought, her language use well-considered, and her details convincing enough for me.  Basically, if you intend to have a beer near a body of water this summer, read this book while doing so.  It’s enjoyable, fast, and illuminates its message without too much preachiness.  Plus it’s very helpful if you’ve ever wondered what life would be like if rats tried to eat everyone you knew.  Teaser!

If you’d like your own copy, you can find Freezing Point at Amazon.  Visit Karen’s website to read about her next book, Boiling Point (of course!).

P.S. Yes, the book’s cover blurb reads only “Gangbusters!”.  In case you are wondering, this refers to a radio show from the 1930s.  The opening sequence had a very intense and exciting series of sound effects, and inspired the phrase.  Some days I don’t think I’d know anything without the internet.

Vermicomposting with WormEco

The Naturemill unit seems to have bought it after the last move- I am not pleased with that thing.  Given that it’s full of half-rotten stuffs now, I’m not excited about investigating its inner workings to fix the problem.  So when I got an email from WormEco last week, inviting me to a vermicomposting workshop, the timing was fortunate.

Wormeco

Elvira Jakovac, the founder and owner, gathered a few groups of people in a local park Saturday to demonstrate vermicomposting.  Basically, get some worms, make them a lovely moist home, and shove in your food scraps for them to eat from time to time.  In a few months, remove their poo.  Voila!  It looks more like regular dirt than poo, which absolutely helps the squeamish.

Elvira has bins for purchase, with bedding and about a half pound of worms she has raised herself inside, so all you need to do is add the food, check to make sure the worms are happy, and remove the compost in about four months- then repeat.  She will not only start them for you, she has fantastic advice on how to keep the worms going so they’ll multiply to eat all the food you give them (if there isn’t enough to eat, they’ll stop multiplying- no worries about some horror movie of forever-multiplying worms).  On Saturday, we were regaled with a short history of vermicomposting (Europeans brought worms on boats by accident!), and the story of her own work in the field- she weighs a lot of worms.  She’s also got environmentally friendly plans on how to deal with bugs and critters, and household chores- her presentation was informative, and a pleasure to listen to.

WormEco is only a few months old, but I hope it’s got a long and prosperous life ahead.  Elvira is serious about getting her green-living message to not only Alexandria, but the world- she’s entered in a National Geographic competition that will reward a person starting a movement in their local communities with a nice chunk of money to make it happen- and she’s promised to walk from Alexandria to DC to accept the prize, if she wins, and would like to invite us all to walk with her.

If you’re interested, check out her website to learn about upcoming workshops ($10 a person) and you may also buy pre-made bins or fresh compost from her directly.

Full disclosure:  I was invited to the workshop free as a guest.  I liked the idea and Elvira enough that I will buy my own bin.  If i get my Naturemill running again, I’ll have compost races!

Oh man a bin of worms!

worm bin

Much less creepy than you thought.

Review: Practical Recycled Calendars

I get a wall calendar and an appointment book every year in one of those green-light, year-by-year-receding-before-us kind of dreams of organization.  I had a pretty date book I got from a seller at etsy for assignments last semester, but it only had date pages and was consequently driving me crazy flipping back and forth trying to remember what was going on.

I am picky about my calendars, since it’s hard enough for me to remember to use them in the first place, and if I don’t like them, they’re just going to get “lost” on a shelf for 11 months.  I require tabs, month pages, and daily spaces from my calendars, and they must be in either sober and dignified or totally awesome patterns.  Plus, now I try to buy sustainable, so…I figured etsy was as good as I was going to get for a while.

But! When I was at Staples near Bailey’s Crossroads, I found a display of At-A-Glance weekly and Monthly calendars, in a new recycled version.  They’re 100% post consumer recycled paper, and the cover and binding have 50% and 90% recycled material, and the ink is vegetable-based.  I got the weekly/monthy appointment book for me, and the monthly for the Gentleman Friend (understandably, he was thrilled, with the smallest “th” possible), but they’ve got other recycled configurations, too. 

Then! My wall calendar was from Barnes and Noble in Potomac Yard this year.  They have an in-house printing company called Silver Lining, which is a member of the Green Press Initiative, and they print on recycled paper using soy ink.  There were a few displays of different calendars from Silver Lining before the New Year, when I got mine, but now you’ve got to search their website for “Silver Lining” to see what’s still in stock.  They are on sale.

Um.  This all assumes that you still need or want a calendar this far into 2009.  Or prep for 2010?  Either way, here’s to procrastination and post-New Year’s sales!

Review: Restaurant Eve is a Classy Mouth Party

In conclusion, it was a tasty, exciting, and relaxing experience.  It is worth every penny of somebody else’s money.

See, I began with my conclusion because I wanted people actually interested in food to understand that this is not that kind of review.  I will not be waxing eloquent about the freshness of the shallots or the balance of the sauces.  This is partly because I can’t remember the names of the sauces, or if shallots were involved in any dish, but really mostly because I do not have a developed palate.  Also because we got seven courses, chef’s choice, and we got the wine pairing with each of the seven courses, so my memory of the last two or three is a bit dim.

What I will say is that the service was attentive but not annoying, languid so that we could properly enjoy each course and pairing, and I ate sweetbreads (brains!?) and monkfish cheeks.  Monkfish cheeks!  Beats the heck out of my boxed organic macaroni.  The wines were paired thoughtfully, and each selection brought out something new in the food.  None of the combinations of fancy bits we were given seemed too bizarre- though I never even knew monkfish cheeks were a thing one might reasonably eat, so I don’t have the best concept of what’s reasonable.

Also, everything tasted good!  Like, eating each bite was lovely and interesting, and the portions weren’t huge or ludicrously tiny, so you could enjoy all seven courses without bloating, and not tire of each one before you finished.  And brains are chewy.

As to the local, sustainable aspects, you’ve read the news articles.  They do it.  They also had real towels in the restrooms for drying your hands, so no paper waste.  Otherwise they’re not overt about it.

I’d definitely go back to the tasting room, if somebody else was paying.  You’ll enjoy it even if you’re not really into fancy food.  If you go, make sure you go with people you like, since the tastings can last four hours.  I’d like to hit the less-expensive Bistro for dinner and the lunch menu is downright reasonable.

Yearly Green Drycleaning

I dropped off my winter coat (wrinkled and stained, what was I doing last year?) and a few other items at the Green Earth drycleaners on North Quaker, and was reminded how much I like them.  They’re just north of the trisection with Braddock and King St., and they have really nice, helpful staff, and an older gentleman named Buddy who appears to make the place tick.  He saved me $40 on cleaning my leather coat (apparently they have to send out leather and suede because cleaning them fully can mess up the dye), but since I just wanted it sanitized and to smell less like a thrift store, they can do it right there for way less.

So yes, I like them, and you should check them out.  Here’s the store story, and a wikipedia article on what they do.

Review: Barbara Freese’s “Coal: A Human History”

I’ve been prevaricating on this review, because I wanted to say something profound about it.  I didn’t not enjoy reading it, but I’m not sure I got an informational return on my time.  So, briefly, here’s what stuck.

Coal  tells many of the little stories of people and events that make the history of coal way more interesting than it should be.  At times, it feel shallow, like the author is trying to jump from interesting bit to interesting bit, and spare us the boring parts underneath.  I’m a fan of the boring backbone of history, though, so we may disagree on this.

The first part of the book discusses when coal was first used, how it grew England, how it grew America, how it grew unions and anti-union sentiment, and briefly sketches the state of coal and the coal industry in America today (important, but dwindling, sort of).  The second bit describes her trip to China, and how it’s doing industrialization on its own coal power.  Vivid descriptions of pollution in London during the coal years echo recent reports of pollution in Beijing.

There are three things you should take away from this book:

1) Coal is very dirty, and it kills a lot of people at every stage of it’s production and use.

2) Without coal, the industrial revolution, growing of manufacturing economies, and wonderful increases in the standards of living for billions wouldn’t have happened/be happening. (Now juxtapose 1 and 2, and you see our dilemma).

3) We should try to not use coal for energy any more, since there are safer sources, but it is going to be very difficult to wean ourselves from it, much less convince the rest of the world to lay off.

Know that, and you’re solid.

The book is informative and well-written, but unless you make a concerted effort, or are just really into the industrial revolution, it’s very likely you’ll forget it on a table somewhere and not notice you haven’t read it for weeks.

Head in the Water

Beaver Lake

It was a very nice vacation, and yes, we windsurfed.  Well, not me, I had some sitting around to do, but I watched, and volunteered to join the canoe rescue/towing operation when it was necessary.

It was a great trip, and I got to go to the flea market, and knit for hours, and read a few books, and I’ll tell you about that later.  I’d like to update you on the water situation, first.

As you have gathered, I visited a lake in WI.  (See above.)  While at this lake, I stay in a tent, and I gather with my family in a one-room cabin, having a fireplace, a few electric lights, a food fridge and a drink fridge, and 3700 decks of cards.  We sunk a well ourselves in the 90s, but that’s as close to running water as we get.  Bathing, when it is done, is done in lake water, and generally directly in the lake.  We did build a shower, just a wooden frame wrapped in privacy tarps with a trash can o’ water and a little tube and pump inside.

Given that we’ve been vacationing as a family on this lake since 1940, we have a vested interest in keeping it nice.  We’ve raised squads of cousins to pull out encroaching lily pads, and just this summer an Uncle engineered a muck-sucker to clean up our swimming area.  The Auntie police have been making sure we cousins were using biodegradable soap and shampoo for generations.  Fortunately, given all this hippie stuff I’m into now, the shampoo I’m using at home is biodegradable already.

New rule:  If I wouldn’t put it in my lake, I won’t put it in my shower drain.

It all gets into the water supply again sometime, and while those chemicals might be great for the bounce and lustre and whatever of my hair, fish don’t have hair.  Neither do helpful aquatic plants.  Biodegradable materials are ones that are made to break down completely into relatively harmless parts when it gets exposed to organic matter for a while.  They’re usually made of more natural ingredients- if it’s harmless to begin with, it’s easier to break it up harmlessly- and lots of them don’t do so well at actually cleaning your head nicely. Finding the biodegradable ones that do clean you to your desired degree is the trick.  Herbal Essences used to be biodegradable, at least- haven’t used them in years, so I don’t know now- and camping stores usually carrying mysteriously opaque bottles of some safe all-purpose soaps.

Kiss my face products

I’m using Kiss My Face Green Tea and Lime Shampoo and Conditioner, and it smells nice and leaves my hair clean and nice-feeling after (add shampoo ad adjectives as you wish- silky?  full of body?  some other ridiculousness?  Whatever.  It looks nice, which is no mean feat after a couple days in a tent).  It’s got a little 100% biodegradable label on the back, which is reassuring, and about 90% of the ingredients were at some point plants.  It feels a bit different than other shampoos- it won’t get as sudsy as they will, but that doesn’t seem to hinder the magic.  Plus, suds are an indication of soapy chemicals- not what you want in a cherished family water body, or a local stream, or the ocean…

So check for the biodegradable label next time you find a new shampoo.  The switch to one with fewer chemicals might be startling at first- and indeed, many of these earth-friendlier hair things aren’t so much hair-friendlier- but if you don’t, the Aunties won’t let you in the lake.

Review: Marvin Zimmerman’s “The Ovum Factor” and Interview

I was invited to review this novel a few weeks ago by Mr. Zimmerman’s publicist, and since I like reading as much as I like butter, here we go!

The Ovum Factor is Mr. Zimmerman’s first novel, which he introduces as an “eco-thriller”, inspired by his interest in the climate change debate.  The protagonist David Rose is a young, handsome, wealthy investment banker/researcher-type person who finds himself dissatisfied with his life.  He feels he is meant for some great purpose, but he’s only done what his family wanted him to do: studied hard, went to a fancy expensive school, got a high-flying finance job.  All he wants now is to find personal fulfillment.  Fortunately, the Voice Of Destiny begins to scream into his ear in the first chapter.

David is assigned by his bank to review the investment potential of a scientific project that aims to inject fetuses with a serum that will grant them superhuman intelligence.  During his investigation, he meets a girl, is pursued by various unsavories, travels the Western Hemisphere, and develops a spine. 

Zimmerman’s done a good job creating a sprawling plot and bringing it all together, and he does have a flair for the dramatic.  The chapters are short and punchy, and typically end at the right moment to make you want to turn the page.  The writing itself is sodden with cliches, however, and not in the good, campy way.  Of the characters, only David comes across as a fully developed person; everyone else is just a prod or a foil for his actions.  And even David seems to make decisions based solely on a wish for Fate Fulfilled, or “Why not?” reasoning.  His penchant for doing what he is told by mysterious strangers and fortune cookies reveals him to be a certain sort of person, for sure, but a frustrating sort of person to identify with in a novel that purportedly tackles serious scientific challenges and moral issues.

Enough about the literary considerations, though.  What makes Mr. Zimmerman’s work an “eco-thriller”, you ask? 

Spoilers ahead, yo.

David’s boss is a part of a private, powerful organization of intellectuals called the Omega Sentinels, who project that the world will be destroyed in the next 100 years by the ravages of climate change.  David’s boss also thinks that humans are so shortsighted, selfish, and unintelligent that they will never be able to come up with a solution to the climate crisis.  A serum that will turn fetuses into creepy-smart babies and super-humanly intelligent adults is the human race’s only chance for survival.  Ah, but of course.

Zimmerman offers a darkly pessimistic view of the state of the world, and a profoundly unsatisfying view of the way to fix it.  Aside from the glaring ethical problems of injecting fetuses with completely new drugs then saddling them with the hope of the world when they pop out (Zimmerman does mention that these issues exist before he blithely dismisses them), the story gives no credit to concerned citizens, environmental activists, or any of the thousands of small and large solutions that people are working on every day to deal with climate change and to live more sustainably.  Sure, by focusing on a fringe scientific effort and imminent doom, you can come up with a more thrilling book, but Mr. Zimmerman doesn’t give his most sympathetic audience enough credit.  His outlook alienates the readers that are concerned about climate change and dealing with the problem themselves, and reinforces the belief in climate skeptics or deniers that the environmental problem is too huge to be solved by real people anyway, so why bother?  I’ll drive my SUV down the block to get me some of that baby serum, and we’ll be cool.

I know that “inspiration for enlightened and helpful discourse” is not the only goal of a novel, especially a thriller.  I’m sure plenty of people who read The Da Vinci Code weren’t looking for a debate on the “Role of Women in Christianity” or “Historical Narratives of the Catholic Church”.  So I can’t fault Mr. Zimmerman for choosing the particular story particulars he did, any further than he meant this as an op-ed.  And it’s a lot more thriller than op-ed. 

The publicist graciously offered to relay any questions I had to Mr. Zimmerman, so here’s the exchange:

Q: In the book, the point of view of the Omega Sentinels is that humanity is doomed by climate change, and incapable of saving itself without drastic scientific intervention.  Is that [your] point of view as well?  If it’s not, how [do you] think that we can fix this climate problem?
A: My point of view on whether humanity will survive climate change? That’s a hard one. Obviously, I’m pessimistic since I envisaged a scenario where dramatic measures must be taken to avert calamity.

My own hope is that we still have time to correct everything that has contributed to this problem. But the clock is running down and we have to act decisively and immediately. The reason I wrote The Ovum Factor and continue to write novels on this theme is because I feel people have to be sensitized to the scale of the threat. Only then will they adjust their lifestyles and stop contributing further to it

At the same time, I’m a great believer in human resilience and will. Once we find the will to act, I’m hopeful that we’ll find the solutions.

I’m not sure his book will have the galvanizing impact that he intends, simply because the solution he poses is so extreme, but I admire him for trying.  It’s not easy putting your thoughts out there to get kicked around, so more power to him.  I hope he keeps at it.

If you’d like to read any excerpts or more about the book and author, check out his website.  The real deal is for sale at Amazon and a bunch of other retailers.

Review: Annie’s Cheddar Bunnies

I’m at home sick today, and generally when I don’t feel well, I want Goldfish. The slightly salty, cheese cracker kind, specifically. I don’t have any, though. They taste best from the big cartons, like the 3-packs at Costco and the gigantic milk-type cartons will do (they start out good but get stale faster than the 3-packs), but I haven’t been to Costco recently, so. I did get a little box of pseudo-Goldfish yesterday, and I’ve had a few for comfort today instead, and I will review those for you.

I annies cheddar bunnieshave a box of Annie’s Cheddar Bunnies. They’re like goldfish, in that they are tiny baked cheese crackers, only they look like bunnies, and they are organic. Whole Foods is dangerous and fun, because their snack foods emit the siren call of organicity, and the have the haunting allure of fair tradicousness. This has led me to purchase items like organic pop tarts on several occasions that I am not entirely proud of, although I have determined that their organic poptarts actually taste good, like spices and fruit and flour, as opposed to like sugary cardboard, as a normal poptart does. Still, that is no reason to buy them, since pop tarts probably aren’t real food.

I digress. I bought the Cheddar Bunnies Tuesday due to 1/3 not having goldfish, 1/3 really wanting goldfish, and 1/3 being curious. They taste…fine. Cheesier than Goldfish, but without the necessary salty tang that pleases me. Also, the bunny shape is flat and too intricate, and richer (do I detect more butter?) than the simple baked cheese taste of the Goldfish. It lacks the simple bulbous fish body shape, the crunching of which hollow space is probably 25% of the enjoyment of the fish.

In terms of packaging, there aren’t that many bunnies in the box, compared to the glut of fish available at Costco. Buying a big box of fish is more efficient, waste-wise. The three-pack at Costco has a recyclable outside box and three plastic inner bags, and this has a tiny recyclable box of recycled cardboard, and a small plastic inner bag. Per bunny, I produce more waste that I would per fish.

On the upside, since the bunnies aren’t as tempting, I don’t eat too many of them and ruin my dinner.

Really, this is all a matter of taste- but if you like the salty, crunchy fish, you might not like Annie’s Organic attempts. I should go back to Costco to fulfill my true cheese cracker desires, but first, I should take some aspirin and go back to bed.


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