Saturday, April 30, 2016

They said it was "refreshing"

Ever since I embarked on my adventures in gelatin cooking my friends have reacted in two ways:

1) They try to help, by sending Jello molds, giving me other Jello cookbooks they've found, and linking to articles about it online. My mom is even planning a day trip to The Jello Museum when I'm in New York in June.

2) They scorn. It's understandable. Some of the Jello recipes are not delicious, and worthy of scorn.

It was in the mixed spirit of helpfulness and scorn together that two of my friends have shared this Buzzfeed post of vintage recipes with me in the last two weeks. I read it and laughed, until I realized that I've made number 18. I didn't ever come back here to tell people what happened to the Velveeta Fudge after I made it and took it to the office, because I wanted to preserve the Christmas miracle of actually making fudge that was suitable for giving to other people, but now that Christmas is over I can tell the horrible truth:

The Velveeta fudge disintegrated.

That's not even the best word for it. That kind of makes you think of a dry, crumble into dust, but what happened to the fudge was so much... oily-er. We were keeping the Velveeta fudge in the office fridge when no one was eating it, because it was made from cheese-like food, and we didn't think it should sit out. Despite that, it started to get oily. Then it started to get oily and somehow spongy at the same time, as if the oil was draining out of it, slowly weakening the substance of the fudge. Eventually, the fudge seemed on the verge of dissolving entirely, and I threw it away.

Let's never speak of it again.

I made fudge at Christmas and everything was fine.

Anyway, realizing that I'd already started down this 24 step pathway to culinary hell, I wondered what else I could make, and landed on #6: 7UP Milk.

This sounded disgusting, but maybe things tasted differently whenever this was published. After all, 7UP has changed a little, and way more people drink skim milk now than whole milk that the milkman brings in bottles and leaves on the doorstep, but I decided to give it a try. To be as authentic as possible, I got whole milk, and non-diet 7UP. I looked for throwback 7UP, or 7UP from Mexico, since either of those would be made with sugar rather than high fructose corn syrup, but had no luck locating it. I found Sprite, but again, I was trying for authenticity, so I did the best I could.

7up and milk 1

The recipe said to use equal parts milk and 7UP, and to pour the 7UP into the milk without stirring, so I did.

7up and milk 2

It still looked and smelled like milk, but I noticed something a little odd when I picked up the glass to smell it: none of the bubbles on top moved. They had transformed into semi-solid milk foam.

7up and milk 3

Maybe it still tastes ok, I thought. The recipe says it's refreshing.

It's not refreshing. Have you ever wanted your milk to somehow be thick yet fizzy at the same time? I swallowed the first sip, just to get the full taste.

It tastes like milk that's right on the verge of turning sour.

I took a second slip, and realized what it tasted like while it was still in my mouth.

I immediately spit it into the sink and poured out the rest.

I do not feel refreshed.

Friday, April 29, 2016

The Gallon of Pickles

I've been eating a gallon of pickles for the entire month of April.

I didn't lose a bet or enter a competitive eating contest. This has nothing to do with Lent. I've been eating a gallon of pickles because I made them, and I made a gallon of pickles because I halved a recipe that would have made two gallons.

Let me explain.

As I mentioned before, after the Asheville Half Marathon Bernadette and I didn't want to go back to our room and lay down, because we were (probably rightly) afraid that our limbs would immediately contract and stiffen, and we might never walk again without terrible pains, like the Little Mermaid in the original version of that story. We couldn't rent bikes, because "it's not bicycle season" at the Biltmore in March (to everything, turn, turn, turn, there is a season, turn, turn, turn... including bicycles), so we drove to Mount Mitchell and climbed it.

Mount Mitchell 2

More correctly, we climbed about ten minutes of it. We drove the rest of the way, because we'd just completed a half marathon. Still, we made it to the top, where we faced views that were extremely similar to the ones I saw last time I climbed a mountain after a half marathon:

Mount Mitchell 1

Mount Mitchell 3

Mount Mitchell 4

Mount Mitchell 6

Breathtaking, right?

Views aside, though, we did learn that there's a mountain called Big Butt:

Big Butt

"Hey, Sir Mixalot, what's your favorite mountain?"

"Son, I like Big Butt, and I cannot lie."

We then climbed back down the mountain and returned to the hotel with the kind of appetite normally reserved for Hungry Hungry Hippos, and headed to the nearest restaurant we could walk to that might have gluten free menu options. Arriving at Cedric's Tavern, which is named after the Vanderbilts' dog:

Biltmore Estate 2

we got a table, got a drink, ordered, and prayed that food would arrive before we had to eat another patron just to survive the night.

"Hey," our server asked, "Would you guys like some pickles?"

At that particular moment in time, I might have eaten an orange if someone offered me one.

"Sure!" seemed so much more polite than "OH, GOD, PLEASE PUT FOOD IN MY MOUTH."

He appeared moments later with a mason jar full of pickle spears, which Bernadette eyed dubiously.

"They smell like dill. Are they dill?"

"Let me try one."

They weren't dill.

"Are they dill?"

"They're like a cross between bread and butter and dill? Sort of sweet, but there's a hint of dill, and something else?"

"Ooooh, let me try."

Three minutes later our waiter brought us a second jar of pickle spears. Five minutes later, he brought the recipe with the third jar of pickle spears and an order of deviled eggs, which I also inhaled.

Pickle recipe

I have no memory of my dinner (possibly a sandwich?) but days later I was still thinking about those pickles, so I decided to make some.

Finding and washing pickling cucumbers was the easy part:


Sourcing juniper berries in Knoxville, on the other hand, was a nightmare. I ended up finding them in the spice section at Whole Foods, and now I can never have children, because if I did they might want to go to college someday and I can't afford to send them there since I spent their college fund on juniper berries at Whole Foods. Still, I found them, and convinced myself to buy them, and then I filled a gallon jar with cucumbers, onions, spices, and expensive juniper berries from Whole Foods:

Cucumbers (2)

And then I poured the brine over it.

The recipe said I had to wait 24 hours before eating them. It really should say 48 hours, because they've gotten better and better the longer they've sat in the refrigerator. The recipe also said that they would only keep in the refrigerator for a month, so all of April has been a race against time, and a series of dinners that look like this:

Sandwich and pickles

These pickles are so good, but there are so many of them. I keep eating them and eating them, but there are still somehow pickles left in the jar. This many pickles:

Pickle jar

Now, it's the end of the month, and I can't eat the rest of the gallon of pickles, because the recipe says not to and I don't want to die.

But they're so delicious that death by pickles might not be a horrible way to go.

Friday, April 1, 2016

All the Books I Read in March

One of my friends suggested that "a really cool April Fool's joke" would be saying I didn't read any books in March.

"Because, you know, you write that list of books you read, and people would be like, 'Joel didn't read anything!' and then you could be like, 'April Fool's!'"

Two things:

1) Past a certain age, I don't think April Fool's is funny any more. Mostly it's just mean spirited and annoying. For the record, I believe it stops being funny for anyone after the age of 18, but your mileage may vary.

2) Nobody who knows me is going to believe that I went a whole month without reading any books.

With that said, I did read some books in March! More than I read in February, so go me!

1) Claudia Gray's Ten Thousand Skies Above You returns us to the dimension-hopping world of A Thousand Pieces of You. A few months have gone by since Marguerite rescued her scientist father, who helped perfect interdimensional travel, from an enemy from another universe. Unfortunately, the aftermath of those events leads Paul, her boyfriend and her parents' assistant, to journey into parallel dimensions again to find a cure for his best friend Theo, who was poisoned by their enemy, Wyatt Conley. When Paul doesn't return, Marguerite and Paul attempt to rescue him but discover that he is splintered, his essence scattered into several of his parallel selves by Conley. Now, Marguerite is forced to work with the enemy to save Paul, traveling to worlds at war, on the brink of disaster, and returning to ones she visited in the past. Through it all she wonders if she can save Paul and Theo, if it will be worth the price, and if her own world will survive.

I liked this, but the first book was self-contained, and this one ends right on a cliffhanger. It's a good cliffhanger, but still a cliffhanger, and I get annoyed by those if the next book is not immediately available.

2) About 20 pages into The Melody Lingers On, I realized that it's a Lifetime movie. All Mary Higgins Clark books are. Don't get me wrong, because you know I love me some Lifetime movies, but let's just call this like it is. There's always a beautiful single woman, menaced by forces beyond her control. There are often children involved, and usually a death or two along the way. The beautiful single woman might also fall in love, but she might not be able to trust the man she's falling in love with, because he may or may not be connected to the danger she's in. In the end, the particulars don't really matter, because they're all the same book. Entertaining, but forgettable.

3) In Kill The Boy Band The Ruperts, assembled on a British reality TV show, are the biggest boy band in the world, and the narrator and her friends, a quartet of teenage fangirls, just wanted to meet them. That was the whole plan, but somehow they ended up with Rupert P., the most useless Rupert, tied to a chair in their hotel room. Now, with the hotel surrounded by Rupert fangirls, the rest of the Ruperts roaming the halls, the hotel bar crowded with Rupert celebrity girlfriends, and the police closing in, the friendships are unraveling, the secrets are spilling out, and the girls aren't sure if they love the Ruperts or if they hate them. All they do know is that they have to figure it out fast, because time is running out and oh, by the way, someone just murdered Rupert P. while he was tied up in their room.

This was darkly funny, but there are definitely things in here that could offend people, and I laughed way more times than I should have at fat-shaming, homophobia, misogyny, and other things that I know aren't supposed to be funny.

4) Truman Capote never intended to publish Summer Crossing, but when the manuscript was found in a set of papers in 2005, his estate decided to go ahead and publish it anyway. The story of 17 year old Grady McNeil, whose parents leave her for the summer in their Manhattan townhouse while they travel to Europe for the summer, is interesting, but I feel like Capote would have gone back and added to what is basically the bare bones of a novel had he intended this for release.

5) I don't usually read Meg Cabot but someone in one of my job-related Facebook groups mentioned Size 12 Is Not Fat because the protagonist, Heather Wells, is an assistant hall director. Wells, a former teen pop star, was dropped by her record company and then had her money stolen by her momager, and ends up as an assistant hall director to pay her college tuition while she copes with loss through eating. She also has to cope with the sudden death of two students in her residence hall, both of whom were sweet young girls with a mysterious new boyfriend, and both of whom plunge down the elevator shaft to their deaths. Is a killer stalking the halls, or were the girls casualties of freshman elevator surfing? Is Heather in danger for investigating, or is everyone right that she just misses attention? And why does her boyband member ex keep showing up to talk to her?

Some of this is very accurate. Anyone who ever worked in a housing or residence life job has had to deal with replacing a popular supervisor who hired all your student staff, listening to the constant refrains of "Justine never made us do that" or "Justine always let us". On the other hand, the constant correction of "Ooops, I said dorm when I meant residence hall" by the narrator (it felt like she said it twenty times in the first twenty pages) gets old and grating pretty quickly. As for the rest, I'm not sure if I'll pick up the other books in the series. Some of this was interesting, but some of it was pretty tedious.

6) Hey, speaking of Lifetime movies, I enjoyed the Lifetime miniseries (which turns out to have been a BBC miniseries that Lifetime got the rights to air in the US) of And Then There Were None so much that I decided to read the book, to compare them. It turns out that the miniseries was really well done and followed the book pretty closely, but the book left the crimes that the ten people were accused of a little more ambiguous in some cases. For those who didn't see it or read the book, eight people are invited to a dinner party on an isolated island, but they arrive at the large house to find two servants and no host. During dinner, a mysterious voice booms into the dining room, accusing each of them of murder. After dinner, they immediately start to die, one by one. Is the killer one of them, or the mysterious Mr. Owen who invited them? And can they escape before the killer comes for them, too? This was a very good read, and makes me want to read more Agatha Christie, which I somehow never have.

Amusing side note: I bought an older, used copy, which was published under the title Ten Little Indians. I made a joke about it on Twitter, and then my friend Jackie informed me that the original published title was even more offensive.

I guess that's our lesson in book history for the day.