Thursday, December 14, 2006


I'm a Rachael Ray fan. There, I said it. I think I even might have had a crush on her up until a few years ago when I was still in grad school and Rachael was as pleasant a way to nurse a hangover as any. Now that I'm gainfully employed, Rachael and I meet less frequently - scheduling problems, don't you know.

For those who came in late, Rachael Ray is the immensely popular host of such tv shows as '30 Minute Meals' and '$40 A Day' on the Food Network channel. She is known for her wide smile, her almost preternatural perkiness at all times and her gift of the terms 'garbage-bowl'and 'EVOO'to the English lexicon. And, although she is no Mario Batali or Bobby Flay, she is a pretty competent cook. I've made some of her recipes so I can assert, from experience, that they work (A recipe for Venetian Shrimp and Scallops even managed to convert a friend to an appreciation of seafood).

The astute latecomer will surely ask at this point, "so what's not to like?"

Exactly my point.

Imagine then my surprise, and shock, to find that Rachael Ray is one of the most reviled anchors on Food Network! There are websites, entire online 'communities' dedicated to vicious criticism of Rachael Ray. Recently, even the New York Times Magazine found itself compelled to comment on this phenomenon in a lengthy article in its November 26,2006 issue (subscribers to the New York Times can access the article here).

Of the many criticisms leveled at Ms. Ray, the most frequent is that she uses too much of pre-packaged foods (bagged salads, canned and bottled sauces and the like), that she drowns everything in chicken broth and - get this! - her recipes are too easy to make.

This, in a country where a traditional Thanksgiving casserole calls for canned beans (one of the worst abominations in the world), condensed cream of mushroom soup and canned fried onions.

Of course, in a flip-flop worthy of John Kerry, the critics also point out that Rachael Ray's recipes are impossible to make within 30-minutes with or without the pre-packed food. Especially without.

To which I say, yes, it probably is impossible to replicate Rachael Ray's recipes in 30 minutes. But then, so is replicating (and I'm not using the term loosely) any cooking show recipe. They don't call it Food Porn for nothing. Just try making one of Emeril Lagasse's extravaganzas at home! Or get perfect cross-hatched char marks on a steak without a 15,000 BTU grill like the one Bobby Flay has in his backyard. If that isn't Food Porn, I don't know what is.

The other criticism heard most often is the use of her signature phrases, 'yum-O', 'delish', the aforementioned 'garbage-bowl' and her infamous 'EVOO', which she usually says right before (helpfully) expanding it to Extra Virgin Olive Oil. According to a article from July, 2005, "Ray's ditzy demeanor also makes her easy to dismiss. She giggles off-cue and constantly praises her own cooking. " She often asks, rhetorically, "how cool is that?!", 'eyeballs' the measurements of her ingredients and uses a 'spoonola' - a cross between a ladle and a spoon.

Personally, I think EVOO is kinda cool, the garbage-bowl is a damned good idea, see nothing wrong with delish and as for yum-o, have you seen this pictures (here, here and here!) from the October 2003 issue FHM Magazine?! Yum-O indeed! Rachael Ray can lick the chocolate off my spoon anytime!

I think a lot of the hatred for Rachael Ray is in fact because her recipes are easy to make and that anyone of us could do them, if not in 30 minutes, then an hour. The founder of the anti-Rachael Ray on-line group profiled in the New York Times magazine article is quoted as saying that Rachael Ray 'trafficked in "common knowledge."' Another person vented that she had been using a garbage bowl for years and that she even lined hers with plastic bags so as not to have to wash them later.

Cooking shows with trained professional chefs like Mario Batali or Emeril Lagasse or Bobby Flay have an awe factor that Rachael Ray doesn't. We are bedazzled by their knife skills, the use of exotic ingredients, their vast knowledge about the cuisine in which they specialize and the fact that they are all (immensely) successful restaurateurs. And so when one of their recipes, tried at home, looks like it came out of a can, there are ready made excuses: he is a trained chef, he used oyster mushrooms but I only had the cheap supermarket button variety - we put it down to the difference between professionals and amateurs. But with Rachael Ray, we think, "what's so special about her? I could do that too, except I don't have a cooking show, the bitch!". And when a recipe that Rachael made seemingly out nothing but canned tomatoes and chicken broth still doesn't turn out well at home, that's when the yum-os and the delishes really begin to grate and the rage and the resentment and the jealousy boil over.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Flipping the Bird

According to an article in the New York Times, pigeons are waging war on the US Armed Forces Career Center at Times Square - and seem to be winning. Apparently, the pigeons have taken over the roof of the recruiting center and, having secured the high ground, are laying siege. When engaged by the military, they retreat but come right back - rather like some South East Asian folks the US military has had prior experience with.

Well, the US military, desperate to get rid of the birds, hired a company to install a sound system on the roof with four speakers that emit "the call of predators and even the sound of pigeons being attacked."

While the sound apparently turns a few human heads every day, the affect on the pigeons so far - didley bupkes! They seem not to be affected by it, ignore it for the most part and the only concession they have made is to vacate the immediate vicinity of the speakers.

The company thinks its because the pigeons, being urban pigeons, have never heard "the call of predators", such as falcon, and therefore, are not effected by the noise.

Here's what I think - these are New York pigeons, for fuck's sake!!! Call of predators indeed! They dodge MTA buses, crazy cabbies, idiot drivers from White Plains and Jersey, not to mention millions of tourists who walk around goggle eyed, staring upwards at the tops of buildings. These bad boys could probably take down a falcon or two, if it came to it. Especially if they were country falcons.

You really think that making a little noise at them would make them go away? I mean, really!

Anyway, here's an excerpt from the article:

NEW YORK REGION | December 7, 2006
Birds Just Won't Listen to Military Noise-Maker
A device is supposed to deter pigeons outside a military recruiting center in Times Square, but the birds don't seem to be paying much attention.

Last month the contractor who maintains the little metal-and-glass building between 43rd and 44th Streets installed a noise-producing contraption that was supposed to shoo the pigeons away.

The device came with four speakers, fewer than some home-theater setups have, but enough to blast bird noises every 10 minutes or so. The noises — the calls of predators, even the sounds of pigeons being attacked — are supposed to scare the pigeons, or at least make them pay attention.

Everybody does pay attention to the noise, it seems — everybody but the pigeons. Pedestrians shake their heads at the idea of woodsy sound effects in the urban jungle. The pigeons, having abandoned the southern end of the recruiting station roof, where the speakers are, stay put on the northern end.

50 Shots

Early in the morning, or too late at night depending on how you look at it, of November 25, 2006, Sean Bell was shot and killed by the police as he was leaving a nightclub with two friends. The two friends, Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield, were critically injured. Bell and his friends were at the nightclub for a bachelor party.

Sean Bell was killed on the day of his wedding.

According to news reports, the police - an unit of seven undercover officers who were at the club as pat of a sting operation targeting prostitution and drug dealing - fired 50 rounds. Twenty-one hit the car Bell and his friends were in – Bell was shot 7 times, Guzman 11 times and Benefield was shot 3 times.

Of the seven officers, only five fired their weapons – standard issue Glock 9mm semi-automatic handguns, with 15-round clips and one round in the chamber – and just one officer, an experienced veteran, fired 31 rounds, using up two full magazines and pausing to re-load once in between.

The officers said that Bell and his friends had had an altercation with another group at the nightclub and an officer who was in the club and behind the trio as they left heard one of them say that he would get his gun. The friends got into their car, the officer asked them to stop; Bell, who was driving, accelerated and hit the officer; the officer fired the first shots, the other police officers, waiting in an unmarked minivan drove up; Bell drove into the minivan, backed up and drove into it again. The police let loose their fusillade.

Bell and his friends never fired back and no gun was found, either on them or in the car or anywhere in the vicinity. They were unarmed.

The community accused the police of brutality and racism saying that Bell and his friends were targeted because they were black. The police said that the nightclub in question has a long history of crime and where many arrests have been made in the past and when they heard one of the three men mention a gun they had to take it seriously. When the men ran into one of the officers and then the car the police were in, they fired. It was regrettable but justified, the police said.

The terrible tragedy of the whole thing is that both are probably correct to an extent.

The three men have an altercation/ fight/ ‘words’ in the nightclub with another group of people. One of the three says, probably loudly, that he has a gun, or he will get his gun. They didn’t have a gun but obviously wanted to make the other group believe that they did. Unfortunately, the officer believed it too. So when they are asked to stop outside the club, they have just been in a fight in which threats with guns were made, they are unarmed, and they see a person in street clothes, obviously looking for trouble asking them to stop. In such a situation, my first instinct would be to gun the accelerator of my car and get the hell away too and if I manage to scare or hit the guy chasing me, so much the better.

But now the guy is firing and his friends show up in a car and they have guns! If Bell and his friends stay there, they’re going to get killed!! So they try to ram their way out and die in the hail of gunfire that follows.

But looking at it from the police officer’s side, one can also understand the situation. The undercover cop, who is alone in the night club, in street clothes to blend in and unarmed (he went back to the car to retrieve his weapon before approaching the three men) sees the fight/altercation in the nightclub, hears the bit about having/ getting a gun, follows the men outside and when he asks them to stop, they run into him with their car Then , when his back-up arrives, the three men run into that car too – twice, deliberately. The officer, hearing talk of the gun, had no reason not to believe it – after all this was a nightclub notorious or crime and where people with guns could reasonably be expected to be found. And when he and his colleagues were rammed by the three people in the car, that was clear and hostile intent, was it not? Thus, justifying the shooting.

Except that they fired 50 shots. Fifty.

One officer emptied the entire first clip, reloaded and then emptied the second clip. While two officers did not shoot at all. Why was there such a disparity in the number of shots fired? Why was one compelled to fire 31 times while two others thought they need not fire at all – in reacting to the same situation? Was the one over-zealous/ racist and the others prudent? Or was the one justified while the two others froze? Perhaps we will never know the answers to these questions.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his excellent book “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking” has a chapter on the other infamous New York shooting – that of Amadou Diallo who was shot 41 times. That took seven seconds and I’m guessing this incident in Queens went down pretty much in the same time frame. Although NYPD officers are trained to fire in bursts and stop after three shots to assess the situation, according to the testimony in the Diallo case, the NYPD manual “require(s) that… the first trigger pull being a conventional trigger pull and all subsequent trigger pulls being a hair trigger pull, and to further require that the ammunition that they carry be known as pointed full-metal jacket ammunition.”

I don’t think that for a veteran, trained police officer firing off 16 rounds, reloading and firing another 15 would have taken more than a few seconds especially given the “hair trigger” guns he was required to carry.

In his book, Mr. Gladwell also describes what he calls, “mind-blindness” – that when stress response is taken to an extreme and heart rates increases 175 the body shuts down all non-essential physiological activity. Is that what happened? Were the officers on the scene so focused on the immediate, the perceived threat that they literally could not see or hear anything else? Maybe.

But these were trained officers. Even if race was not a factor, and I believe it was – on both sides, it was extraordinarily inept police work. And a man is dead. And 50 shots were fired.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

New York Redux

One other thing that struck me in Vir Sanghvi's article that I linked to in my last post was his identification of New York with Times Square. Mr. Sanghvi named a number of cities and the particular landmark with which he identified them: Paris - Champs Elysees; London - Hyde Park; Tokyo - Shinjiku; New York - Times Square. It was a throwaway line and I'm sure Mr. Sanghvi meant nothing by it. Most people, especially those not from the City, when they think of New York are really thinking of Manhattan and specifically of Times Square and Mr. Sanghvi, as someone who has obviously not lived in the City for any considerable period time, made the same tourist's-view-of-New-York association.

Except that New York is so much more than Times Square. In fact, Times Square as we know it today is a fairly recent development, going back to the mid-90s when Rudy Giuliani decided to clean it up. Before that, throughout the 70s and 80s, Times Square was a drug addled, crime-ridden cesspool into which only the very brave or the very foolish ventured. Between porno-theaters, prostitutes and crack dealers, there was little room for the glitz and glamor that we see at Times Square today.

A stroll along Lenox Avenue or 125th St in Harlem or by the Yankee stadium in the Bronx or in 'Little Odessa' - Brighton Beach in Brooklyn will present views of the city that are worlds away from Times Square and are yet quintessentially New York.

But one needn't even go as far afield as Brooklyn or the Bronx. Even if you start at Battery Park and work your way up to the Central Park, you can almost feel the evolution of the City from the organic Downtown to the Bohemian Greenwich Village to the modern grid of Midtown.

New York is often called the world's largest small town and in many ways it is. It is a city of distinct neighborhoods, each with a unique character all its own. You can never mistake Chinatown with Little Korea or the Upper East Side with the Upper West Side. There isn't a border to cross into Harlem but when you are there, you damn well know you're in Harlem.

And so Times Square is not any more a symbol of the City than the Esplanade is for Calcutta or Connaught Place is for Delhi - it's just a place where we park the tourists and dazzle them with lights so the stay out of our way and don't hog the tables at the neighborhood pizzeria!