Feb 25, 2010

Chicken about Chicken

A few months back, I wrote an absolutely amazing review of the different fast food Angus burgers.  The overwhelming popularity of that post (over 10 people read it) led to some very helpful comments.  One person told me that I should be a comedic food critic.  Another person said I had found my niche.  And another person helpfully suggested I should crawl back into whatever brain-dead hole I crawled out of.  I really had intended on continuing that series of reviews.  I had plans to evaluate the different spicy chicken sandwiches.  And then, come February, I was going to look at the inevitable string of fast food fish sandwiches that are trotted out for Lent.  (Seriously, everyone has one now.  McDonalds, BK, Wendy's, Arby's, Checkers)

Well, something strange happened along the way to those events.  I started really looking at my weight and food choices.  And in January, I began a process of completely changing how I eat and approach food.  [All of this is being documented on my other blog "Darth Fatso Must Die" - which gets tons more visitors than this blog, even though it is newer and untagged.]  So, I cannot offer you my pithy comments regarding the fish sandwiches out there.  Why?  Well, I don't eat sandwiches any more.  I haven't had any bread since January 18.  So I wouldn't be much help.

However, I am not quite ready to give up my "idiotic food critiques" just yet.  My new food path actually has brought me into a new group of evaluations.  So, I look forward to offering up some inane comments on things like chili, pulled pork, soup, and salads soon.  Today, I will begin with one of the most basic things out there.  Chicken.

Chicken is cheap.  It is easy.  You can buy an entire chicken at your local grocery store for just a couple of bucks.  It isn't hard to cook chicken.  Put it in a pan, stick it in the oven, cook it until it won't make you sick.  Sure, there are cool things you can do with chicken.  You can marinate it, which infuses it with flavors and keeps it juicy as you stave off the dreaded salmonella.  You can grill it, giving it that carcinogen tinged flavor on the outside as it struggles to finish on the inside.  You can cram a can of beer up its butt and cook it standing up - which has always seemed like a cruel way to treat the poor bird.  But, in the end, it is chicken.

How cheap and versatile is chicken?  There is an entire industry of restaurants that uses one of the most useless part of the bird - the wing - and sells them in giant bowls, swimming with butter and hot sauce.  We eat just about everything on a chicken.  I watch Food Network - and I've seen them use the feet, the gizzards, liver, heart, comb, eggs, and meat.  Shoot, we'll even cook the chicken bones to make soup.  Chicken is good for you.  It tastes great.  It is cheap.  On the whole, the chicken is super food resource.

So, why in the wide wide world of sports is it so hard to find chicken in a restaurant?

This is a serious question.  It is no wonder that people make just abysmally bad eating choices.  There just are not many good chicken options out there.  And, more often than not, when you happen to see "grilled chicken" on a menu, it is some industrial food service prepared chicken breast that gets cooked into dryness.  It is pumped full of salt and "broth" to give it flavor and juice.  It is coated with weird seasoning facial cream.  It is usually a small piece of meat.  And, to add insult to injury, it costs way more than it should.  I just don't understand.

How hard would it be for a restaurant to make sure they had a couple of chicken options on their menu? If they have a grill to do their burgers or whatever, they could just toss the chicken on there.  If they have an oven to bake things, they can toss the chicken in there.  But it just becomes too much effort.  Modern restaurants have this things where everything they order has to be multi-tasked into multiple menu items. They follow the Alton Brown approach to the kitchen - no single use food items.  This is best highlighted by a conversation I had with a waiter at Chili's a few years ago.  I was shocked to see they had dropped fried cheese sticks off their menu.  Chili's always had one of the best cheese sticks you could get.  They were in my Top Five - a place I always ordered them.  I asked why they dropped them. The guy answered that Chili's had made a corporate decision to only stock items in the kitchen that could be used in multiple menu items - so they got rid of them.  (Although they kept Southwestern Egg Rolls.  Kind of weird.)

So, a lot of these restaurants are not going to stock chicken to offer as a meal item.  It isn't exciting.  And it can't be used multiple ways.  I always think, "Well, you can use it as the meat in an entree, as a topping on a salad, and as a sandwich.  That's THREE menu items."  But, they don't really care what I think.  Do an experiment.  Check your local Italian places.  How many of them have anything that involves chicken?  I would wager that 75% of the time, they won't have anything.  They will have wings.  Sometimes they will have a salad with chicken (usually precooked and dumped on).  But they won't have chicken dishes.  Really odd.  I mean, the Olive Garden - which we know is THE authority on authentic Italian food - has a ton of chicken dishes.  So does Carrabba's - the other genuine Italian place. (I am being completely sarcastic about both of those - just to clarify.)

This kind of lays out our chicken dilemma.  Each class of restaurants has a different approach to chicken.  And it seems like none of them benefit us.  Fast food places, the cheapest and most accessible restaurants, seem to have grilled chicken dishes.  But, as a rule of thumb, they are horrible.  Their fried chicken patties are vastly superior - but their grilled chicken items are lousy.  I would hate to see the chickens these things came from.  McDonalds, which has two different fried chicken offerings, has a pathetic grilled chicken patty.  It is better than BK.  The King has a huge tendercrisp fried chicken.  But their Tendergrill is coated with weirdness.  (A disturbing trend among these places that is usually missed because the coating soaks into the bread.  It only stands out on the salad.)  Wendy's - who has nuggets, boneless wings, a great fried chicken patty, and tons of salads - has a measly grilled chicken that, again, has that weird salty bouillon coating on it.  Arby's doesn't even have grilled chicken.  It has amazing fried chicken sandwiches, but if you don't want that you are stuck with sliced roasted chicken deli meat.  Checkers doesn't even bother with the masquerade of caring.  I don't believe Hardee's does either.

What's really disappointing is the chicken places out there.  KFC has this highly touted grilled chicken now.  It supposedly is amazing.  Uh, no.  It is horrible.  It is dry and salty  - like a chicken jerky.  Seriously, it takes like it was dehydrated.  The breast pieces are so small - I think they actually came off of a pigeon.  Popeye's, my favorite chicken place, doesn't even have grilled chicken.  That's really too bad, because they would probably do a great job.  Chick Fil A - the king of chicken places - has grilled chicken.  And, admittedly, it is far superior to most places.  But you need one and half servings of it to make a legitimate meal.  Subway's roasted chicken, when taken off the bun and eaten independent of cheese and other goodies, is absolutely horrible.  It is bland and full of water.  I ordered double meat one day and was starving within an hour.

The next class of restaurant - the "family dining establishment" - has a very checkered list of options.  Most of these places have at least one chicken dish, but it usually is smothered with bbq sauce or cheese or bacon or some glorious combination of all of that.  That is one thing I have learned.  If you make inadequate chicken, drown it with accessories.  These places sometimes will have a more simple chicken meal - like Applebee's on their Weight Watchers menu or Chili's on their Guiltless Gutless lineup.  But, as memory serves, those offerings are some combination of dry or salty or bland or tiny.  Sometimes you manage to actually get a piece that is dry, bland, and salty.  How is that possible?  Italian places usually fall into this category, and as we discussed, many of them have absolutely nothing to offer.  Now, there is also the plentiful offerings of wings at these places.  They all seem to have some variation of buffalo wings.  But, as I discussed the other day on Darth Fatso, wings are almost always fried and smothered in some sort of sauce.  So that isn't real chicken, it is just a conduit for fat.

[One exception to this class is the meat place - BBQ, Boston Market, stuff like that.  They have chicken. It is often good.  But it is almost always on the bone.  I hate eating chicken off the bone.  But, when I have to, I make do.]

You have to jump into the more expensive restaurants before you find a more consistent approach to chicken.  Olive Garden, which is the most overpriced restaurant on the planet, actually had tremendous chicken.  It is always flavorful and well cooked.  Carrabba's has even better chicken.  I wish I knew how to make my chicken taste like theirs.  It doesn't matter what sauce or pasta comes with it - their chicken is just phenomenal.  Steakhouses usually have amazing chicken.  In fact, as a rule of thumb, I have always preferred ordering chicken or fish at a steak place.  Long Horn has the usual "chicken covered with stuff I can't eat" dish.  But they also have Sierra Chicken, which is grilled with bruschetta style tomatoes on top.  It is amazing.  Ted's Montana Grill has multiple chicken options that are wonderful - but I never order them because I can't pass up bison.  Outback's chicken is just their steaks - good, overpriced, and nowhere near deserving the hype.  If you want to go big time, I remember ordering chicken at Morton's Steakhouse before.  (Don't ask.  It wasn't my finest moment.)  It was unbelievable - although it cost like twenty bucks.

I still don't understand why it is so hard for places to do chicken well.  There are very few places that I would say make really good non-fried chicken.  In Tallahassee, the Red Elephant Grill makes some delicious bird.  You can pick one of four different sauces for it - which they don't drown the meat in.  It is succulent and well cooked.  I remember that Grady's American Grill had the consistently best chicken I ever ordered.  We used to eat there in Tampa (Brandon, actually) all the time.  It didn't matter which variation of chicken, either.  Their secret was the marinade.  I wish I had been able to score that marinade before the chain died.  Mimi's Cafe does some great stuff with chicken also.  And they give you huge portions of it.  But, for the most part, if you want good chicken at a restaurant, you have to pay a premium for it.  That just seems backwards.  If this is such a cheap and versatile commodity, I would think places would easily master it.  You know, how so many places have good burgers?  Why couldn't they also have good chicken, instead of relying on Sysco brand bird meat?

Over the last year, I have become a master of chicken.  I can make it several different ways, with several different tastes, using several different techniques.  Usually, I pan sear it and then cover the lid to steam it as well.  It keep it very juicy, but allows for a lot of flexibility with the spices.  I recently learned how to use a grill pan with it.  I put it on there to give it grilled flavors, and then throw the whole pan in the oven to finish it.  Sometimes, I'll marinate it first.  Sometimes I'll dry season it.  Sometimes we'll use the crock pot or even oven cook it.  (How quaint.)  I guess that actually kind of best communicates the lesson I've learned about food through my recent experiences.  You can usually make the stuff better, cheaper, and easier than a restaurant.  So, do it yourself.

Feb 23, 2010

Can the Olympics Survive?

The Winter Olympics are in their second week up there in Vancouver, which is Canadian for "So Much Prettier Than Where You Live."  There have been some great stories and performances so far.  We have Ohno becoming the all-time winningest US Winter Olympic athlete.  We've seen the redemption of Bode Miller.  There's been some beautiful figure skating, some unbelievable aerial tricks, and tons of speed.  But, there is still something that really gives me a bad feeling about the fate of the Olympic Games.

If you read anything about the Olympics, it is going to be tainted by some of the negative things that have happened in Vancouver.  There was the luger who died during practice on an unsafe course.  There were the environmentally safe zambonis that ruined the speed skating short track.  Then there was the snow melting on the mountains, making skiing nearly impossible.  And, of course, there is NBC's coverage of the Games.  It has been labeled as everything from horrific to pointless to irritating.  When you combine all of this, and a few other points, there is a real legitimate concern for the Games' long-term success.

Suspense is dead.  I remember back in 1984.  We had the Sarajevo Winter Olympics and the Los Angeles Summer Olympics.  To me, that was when America hit a whole new level of obsession with the games.  Lake Placid had hosted the 1980 Winter games, with such amazing moments as the "Miracle on Ice" hockey victory over the Soviet Union.  We boycotted the 1980 Games, which made us extra-hungry for the 1984 Games on our home turf.  The Soviet boycott just helped America to win everything - which made it even better.  We had the Mahre brothers, Scott Hamilton, Brian Boitano, Katarina Witt, The Carruthers, and Torvill and Dean in Sarajevo.  Then there was Carl Lewis, the Gymnastics teams, Greg Louganis, and the swimming team in Los Angeles.  But, the only way to know anything was to watch television.  I remember spending every day in front of the tv with my family - watching everything and anything.  1988 was in Seoul and Calgary.  Calgary was still close, so there was some interest.  But Seoul was hours away, so all the great events were on LATE at night.  I remember staying up until after midnight to watch Ben Johnson's roid fueled destruction of the 100 meter record.  As a result, we had a lot of tape-delayed sports.  Things would get played early in the morning and shown at night.  It worked pretty well, since there wasn't a lot of options.  And the other stations played nice, telling you to not watch when they announced results.

1992, the Winter hit France and the Summer was in Barcelona.  Both games seemed underplayed here.  There were some moments like The Dream Team in basketball, Bonnie Blair and Kristi Yamaguchi.  But the US didn't do as well in either one.  The Winter Games switched off of the Summer Games years in 1994 - being played in Lillehammer.  You had Nancy Kerrigan, Tonya Harding and Dan Jansen.  Mostly, though, the US didn't perform up to par again.  1996 had Atlanta - which we ate up, since it was in America again.  But, this was the last Games to really operate under the old media rules.  Starting with the 1998 Nagano Games, and really emphasized with the 2000 Sydney Games, the new media rules began to play.  We didn't have to watch the Games.  We could go on the Internet and find out results.  That meant that tape-delayed sports just didn't cut it.  I remember Heather going online to see all the gymnastics results from Sydney - almost ten hours before they aired.  No one knew how to handle this.  ESPN had become a behemoth by this point, also.  So they had their tickers running with constant updates.  There were never live sports shown.  A 13 hour time difference killed that possibility.  The Nagano Games were almost in a shroud of secrecy - a huge time difference and a disappearing US presence.  The biggest things from that event were the rowdy and disgusting behaviors of the US Hockey team and the Lipinski/Kwan figure skating battle.

The tape-delayed method that was set in stone by NBC was not suited for a world where you could get instant news.  The 2002 Salt Lake City games was helped by being on US soil, so there wasn't much tape delaying, although there was some.  But it was also marred by the massive scandals that plagued it - from bribes to get the Games there to screwing the Canadian figure skaters out of a medal.  2004 the Summer Games went to Athens - which may have been the worst coverage ever.  Tape delaying was so bad.  2006 in Turin and 2008 in Beijing also had to deal with long distance coverage, and the horrible tape delays.  It meant you knew everything way before it ever aired.  Shoot, you may have already SEEN the coverage before it aired.  I remember some of Usain Bolt's insane performances being on the Internet before they were on tv.  So, how did NBC decide to deal with the fact they were getting scooped constantly by their own internet arms?

They went for the human interest stories.  If they couldn't build suspense with the events, due to everyone knowing the outcomes, then they would drum up interest by making the athletes' stories more prominent.  It had been successful in some of the Games in the 80s, so NBC decided to beat it into the ground.  So, now, whenever you watch the Olympics at night, you see a few minutes of taped action from earlier in the day (which you already knew about).  Then you get a story about some athlete who overcame huge obstacles to be here (that's all of them).  Then there are a few live shots, maybe a medal presentation.  Then there's some story about Vancouver (or China or Italy).  Then a few more minutes of taped coverage.  Then another story.  It isn't sports coverage.  It is trying to make everything into a sports movie.

This has driven true sports fans away from NBC's coverage into the MSNBC, USA, and CNBC realms, where they just show live events.  This could explain the shooting popularity in curling, hockey, and the sledding track events.  They are shown in their entirety without listening to Bob Costas or Mary Carillo or Al Michaels.  You just get to watch a game as it unfolds - often live.  The drama is nice, but it builds too much reliance on the specific chosen athletes to make the Games a success.  I remember with Bode Miller, he was played up so much in Turin, that when he didn't medal it made the whole Games seem like it did poorly.  This leads to the next problem.

As Americans, we want to be the best in everything.  If we aren't the best, we will throw money at the situation until we are.  If that doesn't work, we just quit worrying about it.  This is why men's tennis is a non-entity in America.  We don't have the best players in the world, or anyone close, so we just stopped caring.  The same thing is true about soccer.  It is part of the arrogant American approach to life that has been ingrained in us almost since we became a country.

That means that we need to win every Olympics.  We want to be the top medal country.  We aren't content to win the overall, either.  We want to win the most in each event.  We want winners in every sport.  If we don't win certain sports ever, we don't cover them either.  Have you noticed how little play ski jumping gets now that America routinely finishes last?  It gets buried in coverage.  We also will try to change the rules to make sure we can win.  Look at basketball, hockey, soccer, baseball, golf.  We now have our professional athletes go to make sure we win.  We hate losing.  America doesn't lose.  And if we are counting on an athlete to win, to carry our coverage, they had better not lose either.

Here's how ridiculous it is.  Lindsey Vonn is one of the greatest female skiers ever.  But she had a "disappointing Games" by most commentators.  What was her crime?  She only won two medals.  She fell in one event, so she didn't get three medals.  Bode Miller has always been seen as a failure because he had never won a gold medal.  We've never won ice dancing medals.  But last Olympics, Belbin and Agosto won a silver.  So this year?  Well, naturally, they had to win.  They came in fourth - what a horrible job!  At least the other US team managed to get a silver.  It is like a dad who has a kid come home with all A's and a B in Med School and asks what happened with the B.

These athletes are expected to do ridiculous things.  Don't just get TO the Olympics.  You HAVE to win.  If you come in fourth, you failed.  Vonn was racing with a shin that was so hurt it would have put normal people on crutches.  But she is a failure because she didn't get three medals.  Someone wrote that if she hadn't spent so much time modeling and doing appearances, then she probably would have won.  What?!?  How are those even related?  She did modeling in December, so that's why she bruised her shin or fell on the slope?  That's just stupid.  But that is how we treat our athletes.  If you win, we will throw money at you and turn you into a demigod.  If you lose, you get booted to the curb.

The Olympics is a big money item.  But, NBC has already told everyone that will listen that they are losing money.  It is highly likely that they will not try to win the next Games up for bid - the 2014/2016 Games.  I read something the other day that talked about how ESPN/ABC would probably try to grab the Games.  Or Fox will sneak in like they did with the BCS Games a few years back.  What will happen if the Games go to ESPN?  There are still a large number of people in America - and worldwide - that don't get cable.  Will they use ABC as the "human interest outlet" like NBC is now?  ESPN has the resources to give a ton of coverage.  They have ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN Classic, ESPN U, ABC, ABC Family, Disney, Disney XD - and the new ESPN 3D channel that is coming.  Add in the ESPN 360 web outlet and the ESPN pay per view channels.  Let's just say the coverage could improve.  But how do you deal with the tape delay?  No matter how many channels you have, there still is going to be the problem of the marquee events (women's figure skating and gymnastics, 100 meter race, finals in team sports) being played at other times.

The 2012 London Games will only have a five hour difference from Eastern US time, not much worse than the three hours from the West Coast.  But NBC has already said they are going to keep using tape delays.  2014 will be in Russia.  And then 2016 is in Rio - which is in virtually the same time zone as the US.  (So we'll be able to watch people get kidnapped and murdered live.  Just kidding.)  The Rio games highlighted another disturbing trend.  It is ugly just how much money is getting thrown at even getting the Games.  The proposals costs to be considered as a finalist is ridiculous.  Once you are a finalist, you basically have to start preparing as if you won the Games just to get considered.  If you lose, all that  money is down the drain.  The 2012 battle was ugly.  Florida was in the early running, but it didn't stand a chance against New York.  The final battle of New York, London, Moscow, Madrid, and Paris was like a Battle of the Titans.  The Olympics, though, want so much.  The Games have become such a huge deal that they require an unbelievable amount of work.

For the last few Olympics, the host cities had to built multiple stadiums.  Just look at the price tags of some of the new stadiums in America.  Cowboys Stadium in Dallas was $1.2 billion.  The new Jets/Giants stadium in New Jersey was $1 billion.  A billion dollars for a stadium?!?  Even the new Orlando Magic arena will be $500 million - for a small market team.  So how much would it cost to build an Olympic stadium, swim facility, basketball stadium, Olympic village, in addition to all the smaller facilities.  London is renovating some sites, but they also have to build a lot of stuff (not as much as Athens, who barely could complete the job).  But that's not it.  London is building a high speed rail for the Games.  Sydney had to develop an entirely new area of town, complete with multiple train stations and lines.  Add to that the thousands and thousands of hotel rooms that have to be available.  Florida actually had a good bid for the 2012 games.  They had a lot of pre-existing hotels, conference centers, and sports arenas between Orlando and Tampa.  But the transportation was the problem.  There is no public transportation in Florida.  So they were going to have to build a high speed train, widen I-4 to 12 lanes, and create a whole system of buses.

All that money going into the bid, the prep, the construction is supposedly going to be made up by the influx of money into the area.  But what about afterwards?  There is the upkeep of these newly created items.  That train that wasn't needed before the Games is now going to drain money.  The stadiums can be repurposed - most of the time.  Sydney and Atlanta turned the Olympic Village into housing.  But what the heck are you going to do with a velodrome?  (For the cycling events.)

So where is the Olympics going?  I don't think it is going to disappear.  Worldwide, it still has a huge draw.  And the next few Olympics - at least the next two Summer ones - will have a lot of draw to Americans.  But I wonder how it is going to have to adapt to succeed in the changing world.  I love the Olympics.  I like seeing the spectacle.  I enjoy the sports, even if I don't want them the rest of the time.  I like bobsledding and ski jumping and downhill events.  In the summer, I like gymnastics and swimming and track and field.  I even have grown to really like curling this year.  But, like many people, I want to be able to watch them without hundred of commercials and stupid interruptions.  It is like the NFL.  It used to be watching a game was exciting.  But now, there are so many television time outs and sideline reports and so much hype, that the game has become less fun.  UNTIL it goes into overtime.  Then, the tv timeouts go away and the game becomes what it once was.  That is how Olympics hockey, basketball, most Olympic events are.  They are heart pounding, exciting, thrilling.  They have clear winners and losers.  That is why they have gotten to the point they have.  So, let the Games speak for themselves.  Don't try to make them dramatic or suspenseful - they already are.  Let them unfold as they should.  Make us stay up late to see important races, instead of holding them until tomorrow when we'll watch them on YouTube.  Use the new technology to help.  The Olympics in HD is stunning.  Try out new camera angles and 3D technology.  Give us cameras imbedded in the track.  I love the new cameras they use in swimming.  Come up with ways to broadcast the games that will make us WANT to wait to see the events.  Give us a reason to tune in instead of checking the results on our iPhone app.  Put the extra stuff online - the bios, touching stories, travel dialogues.  Make it so that what we are seeing is so phenomenal on television that we won't be satisfied with just replays.  That will make it must-see again.

Feb 18, 2010

What We Can Learn From SB XLIV

Just when you thought it was safe to forget about football and focus on the lamest Winter Olympics in recent memory, here I come to throw in my two cents.  Now that we are removed from the Super Bowl, we have had time to think about the game.  But it isn't just morning-after reactions, repeated by thousands of annoying sports radio dimwits nationwide.  We can actually look at The Big Game (trademarked by the NFL) and come up with some lessons.  Some of these can be sports related.  Some are entertainment related.  And some are, considering the source, useless drivel.  And if you think that is going to stop me, then you haven't been reading this blog very long.

If there is one thing I hate, it is a professional sports franchise throwing in the towel.  It could be because they are terrible and want to get a better draft spot - like the NBA sees happen every February and April.  Or it could be because they are too good, and want to rest their players.  This is what happens to the Indianapolis Colts just about every year.  They start off with an amazing record, clinch their division by Thanksgiving, and cruise through the rest of the season.  This year, they started off 14-0 and only had games left against the struggling Jets and pathetic Buffalo Bills left.  They could have done what only two teams have ever done - gone through the regular season undefeated.  But the coach pulled the starters and they lost both games.  They won both playoff games convincingly, but seemed off in the Super Bowl.  And so, in the game they were supposedly helping their odds by sitting players, they just didn't have their mojo.  I really think the Colts threw themselves off by taking the break.  The one year they won the Super Bowl, they started 9-0, but finished 12-4.  It was one of the weaker Colts teams Manning had in his recent run.  But they had to play every week.  They had to play in the Wild Card round, instead of getting a playoff bye.  And they went on to win the title.  If they were going for 19-0 and football immortality, there would have been an added level of focus - even for Manning.  It seems like every year they take weeks off, they end up losing in big games.  Which leads into the next lesson...

One of the things that makes Peyton Manning so great is his psychotic preparation.  He breaks down film and studies harder than anyone else.  And so he is more prepared than everyone else.  You can see that in the games.  He calls his own plays and seems to know what is going to happen before it does.  That is why he regularly has ridiculous regular season records.  Eliminating his first year, when the Colts were still atrocious, Manning has a 73% win percentage in the regular season.  But he is 9-4 after bye weeks (69%) - all of those four losses came against quality teams.  He's 2-4 in playoff games that he had two weeks to prepare for.  In college, Manning compiled a 40-9 record (81.7%).  In games after bye weeks, he was 10-3 (77%).  But against QUALITY teams after a bye, he was he was 3-3 (50%).  Two of the four UF defeats for Manning came after two week byes.  And the loss to Nebraska in the Orange Bowl his senior year was after having a month off.  It seems like maybe his preparation is so great during one week layovers - greater than anyone else.  But that second week gives others a chance to catch up - especially quality teams.  Cruddy teams are going to get beaten by Manning even if they have a month to prepare.  But when those opponents are on a similar plane, the extra week seems to nullify the Manning advantage.  And it gives Manning a chance to think about things too much.  I've heard announcers say, "You don't want to give Manning two weeks to prepare."  Yes!  Yes I do!  Give him two weeks.  He may just prepare himself out of beating me.

I am certainly not saying this was the best game ever.  It was exciting.  There was a lot of drama and great moments.  We have had some great games lately - the Patriots/Giants game, the Cardinals/Steelers game last year, even the Colts/Bears game.  We haven't had a lot of those nauseating blowouts from the 90's.  Compared to those other games, this game wasn't that great.  BUT, the entire spectacle of the Super Bowl may not be seen again.  The unique situation of the Saints being involved against one of the five biggest stars in the NFL gave it dimensions far beyond a normal Super Bowl.  I thought that the Patriots going for an undefeated season against the Giants set the stage for the biggest game ever.  But, there are a lot of people who hate the Patriots.  And Eli Manning is not the same as Peyton Manning.  So that game was dwarfed by this one.  The Saints story was too compelling.  The nation as a whole really adopted the team after Katrina.  It was like anyone with any interest in football was invested in this game.  We all knew how big the game was to the whole Gulf region.  Last year, I wrote a preview of the Super Bowl, where I talked about the NFL teams and labelled them as national, regional, state, or city teams.  I incorrectly placed New Orleans in the State level.  I had no clue how huge they were to all the states around Louisiana.  And, after Katrina, they actually have become a national team.  That was evident by the numbers for this game.  The NFC championship game between the Saints and Vikings was the highest rating show since the Seinfeld finale.  The Super Bowl was the biggest show in television history - finally beating the MASH finale.  The Saints victory parade was shown live on CNN!  It was a huge deal with huge story lines.  The Saints, former league doormats, were going for a title.  The city of New Orleans looking for something great to grasp on to.   The Manning showdown - Archie's career in New Orleans vs Peyton.  Top that off with Drew Brees having one of the cutest kids in the world.  It was a huge game.  What could compare to that?  The long-suffering teams in the NFL do not resonate with the public like the Saints did this year.  Detroit?  Cleveland?  The Jets?  They aren't going to draw those numbers.  The Vikings?  I don't think so.  Too many people have some tie to The Big Easy - from a trip there or going to school there or getting arrested or naked there.  The only way I could see another game being this big is if Las Vegas got a team which stunk for 40 years.  Then Vegas would get destroyed by Transformers or a demon tornado.  Then they would rebuild and win the Super Bowl in a victory over the grandson of Peyton Manning and Jennifer Aniston.  Like I said, not likely to duplicate this soon.

So, did you run out and re-watch the Super Bowl ads?  Yeah, me neither.  There were four that I thought were really good.  The Betty White Snickers ad - largely due to the fact that Betty White is absolutely hilarious.  Abe Vigoda just put it over the top.  I liked the Dodge Charger "Man's Last Stand" ad, although I find it hard to believe that would be the car guys chose to make their last stand.  And I thought the Kia Sorrento ad with Muno and the giant Sock Monkey was great.  Each time I see it, I find new stuff.  The monkey getting a tattoo sewn on, Muno's dice themed bowling ball, the monkey on the bull.  Great ad.  Of course, the one with the biggest buzz was the David Letterman/Jay Leno/Oprah ad - which was brilliant, funny, and shocking all in one.  The problem is that these companies now are trying to live up to an imaginary standard.  They want a legen-(wait for it)-dary ad.  So they try to get something that everyone will love and talk about forever.  But, they are missing the boat.  With their focus groups and big name agencies and wilder reaches for humor, they are not really taking any risks.  The huge ads that have remained icons, they all were enormous risks that really paid off.  But they also were hated by a huge group of people.  The Apple 1984 ad?  There were a ton of people who thought it was creepy and confusing.  The Cindy Crawford Pepsi ad was deemed as sexually exploitative.  The Catfight Miller Lite ad was deemed pure filth.  But that is also what made them such legends.  Are you going to sit there and talk in awe about the first time you saw the house made out of Bud Light?  No.  The only ad from this Super Bowl that will be remembered for any length of time will be the Late Show one - due to how shocking it was to see Jay and Dave together.  It inspired as much analysis after the game as the game itself.  Shoot, there were articles already being posted about it DURING the game.  But that is the modern era of advertising and television programming.  It is analyzed and focus grouped to death.  Anything truly stunning is removed early in the process.  The Late Show ad was thrown together at the last minute.  Less than a dozen people knew about it.  That is why it was great - surprise and shock.  Not something manufactured to represent those things.

The fear from Lesson IV is also apparent even more in Lesson V.  The Who?  What?  That is exactly what I said when the announcement was made months ago that they were performing.  Who the heck picked them?  We like to point at Janet Jackson as the reason why halftime shows have stunk lately.  But they were getting to be pretty dumb before that.  They want to replicate the spectacle from Michael Jackson's show years ago.  So they keep going for big stars.  Only now, they also are worried about content.  There have been XLIV Super Bowls.  We have, to this point, only seen one nipple (nipple shield actually).  And it was not planned.  So, is all of this caution is being exerted to stop something from happening that was never supposed to happen in the first place?  Shoot, one year they had Aerosmith, Britney Spears, 'N Sync, Nelly, and Mary J Blige on stage together and everyone stayed clothed.  If nothing happened then, why would it now?  So the networks keep picking "safer" acts - ones that appeal to a wide variety of people.  But, in those safe years, we have had Prince placing his guitar in front of his groin to make it look like, um, his unit.  And we have had Bruce Springsteen slide crotch first into a camera.  How's that safer acts going for you, guys?  What they need to do is pick someone who is going to be a great performer - someone who has a track record of great concerts.  Not someone who used to put on great shows.  Someone who still does.  Look at U2 and their performance back in 2002.  It was phenomenal.  They put on a great show.  But they are a risk.  They are very political, vocal, and Bono one time dropped a F-bomb during the Grammy's.  They do a great show.  The networks need to go to these artists and say, "Listen, we know you are a musician and have the desire to shock.  But if you do anything stupid, we will tell our parent company to ban you from everything they ever do again.  We will throw you under the bus and destroy you.  Put on the best show you can.  Sing well.  Keep it clean. Don't mouth off.  100 million people will watch you and if you do a great job, they will go buy your albums.  If not, they will eat you alive and we will help them.  The end."  Then they need to go to groups that are doing great stuff now.  If they are too modern, tell them to do a big cover with an older guest star.  If they are old, tell them to do a big cover with a newer guest star.  Coldplay, Bon Jovi, Beyonce with Gladys Knight, Metallica with an orchestra (seriously - it is amazing), U2 again, Justin Timberlake, Black Eyed Peas and Stevie Wonder.  There, you have acts through Super Bowl LI.

Feb 5, 2010

Pixar's Golden Moment

With the recent Oscar nominations coming out, I have thought a little bit more about movies lately.  I will put my reaction to the nominations up soon, but I am still trying to decide what I think.  One particular thing I have thought of, though, is the fact that one of the nominations for Best Picture was Pixar's masterpiece Up.  Now, most of you probably know that the Academy expanded their Best Picture category to ten movies this year.  It was supposedly a way to harken back to the old days, when there were ten pictures up.  But, anyone who knows anything about Oscar, knows that it actually was a pathetic attempt to get more public interest in the flagging show by giving more spots to "popular films."  This can be translated as, "Our snooty voters keep on nominating movies no one sees and no one give a crap about, so we are going to put on a show that we want more accessibility to our awards."

I think it was one of those moves that was necessary after last year - where there were two extremely legitimate "popular movies" that got rejected YET AGAIN.  The Dark Knight and WALL-E deserved to be nominated.  There was a pretty big public outcry, so the Academy scrambled to make it right this year.  [A similar thing will happen with the idiotic NFL overtime rules as soon as some team loses a Super Bowl without ever touching the ball in overtime.  It will help if that team has a player named "Manning" on it.]  So, this year the Oscars have ten pictures up.  But the stupid thing is that everyone knows which movies would have been the top five, if there had only been five.  And the other ones don't have a shot in Hollywood of winning.  If it had been five films, then Avatar, Up in the Air, Hurt Locker, Precious, and A Serious Man would have been the nominees.  One popular film, one pretty well watched film, three whiffs.  But, since they added five more slots, then Blind Side, Up, District 9, Inglorious Offsprings-of-Unmarried-Parents, and An Eduction also got up for the big golden nude guy.

The last five films are just happy to be there.  It is really just a three movie race - it has been for months.  It is between Avatar, Up in the Air, and Hurt Locker.  So, the other seven get to dress up pretty and go hear Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin make jokes.  But, there is one interesting side story I have thought about from this.  Up scored a Best Pictures nod - the first Pixar movie to do so.  They have been nominated for, and regularly won, the Best Animated Film.  They also have been nominated for Best Screenplay a few times - a big jump for an animated film.  But they couldn't shake that animated Best Picture curse.  Up is only the second animated movie EVER to be up for Best Picture (1991 Beauty and the Beast was the other).  That made me wonder - if there had been ten nomination slots for the whole of Pixar's run, how many Best Picture nominations would they have?  It is an interesting question.  That made me think through Pixar's library, rank them from bottom to top, and see which would have had a chance for Oscar's highest award.  Because that is how I roll.

10. CARS (2006)
Nominated for: Best Animated Feature, Best Song
Won: Nothing

Ten Picture Best Picture Field Deserving?  No
Breakdown: Don't get me wrong.  Being the worst Pixar movie is like being the third best Lord of the Rings movie.  It is like being the worst starter in an All Star Game.  Even the tenth place Pixar movie is better than 98% of all animated movies and 90% of all regular movies.  Cars was a great movie.  It was so fun.  My son and I had a blast at it and we had a whole garage full of cars from the movie.  It made tons of money, had the most merchandising opportunities, and is spawning a sequel.  It was fun and sweet and funny.  But it wasn't that original - the story was very similar to Doc Hollywood (something I pointed out, and that numerous others did as well).  It lost best Animated Feature to Happy Feet (?).  And there were about seven legitimate films that could have filled an expanded Best Picture category.

9. BUG'S LIFE (1998)

Nominated for: Best Music (no animated feature award that year)
Won: Nothing

Ten Picture Best Picture Field
 Deserving?  No
Breakdown: I think Bug's Life gets lost in the shuffle.  It was sandwiched between the two Toy Story films.  It is the lowest grossing Pixar movie (only a lousy $163 million).  But it is very entertaining.  Only, it is a lightweight film compared to the heftier Pixar fare.  It didn't get nominated for anything but score.  And there were too many other good movies that year.  Plus, that was the year that everyone in the Academy went absolutely insane and voted for Shakespeare in Love over Saving Private Ryan.  I'm getting angry just thinking about it.  Let's move on.

8. MONSTERS, INC (2001)

Nominated for: Best Animated Feature, Best Song, Best Music, Best Sound Editing
Won: Best Song

Ten Picture Best Picture Field
 Deserving?  No
Breakdown: It was a very beloved film and another raging box office success for Pixar, raking in $255 million.  And it was a very original, fun film that poked fun at decades of monster movies.  Brilliantly done and acted.  But it didn't even win Best Animated Feature in the first year of that award - being topped by a superior and even more creative Shrek.  So how could Monsters, Inc be up for Best Picture - even in a ten film field.  Shrek would have nabbed that spot, though.

7. TOY STORY 2 (1999)

Nominated for: Best Song (no animated feature award that year)
Won: Nothing
Ten Picture Best Picture Field Deserving?  No
Breakdown: It was one of the best sequels of all time.  It firmly put Pixar on the map as a consistent force.  But, it wasn't the earthshaking event of the first Toy Story.  And it hadn't moved into the powerful film realm of the later Pixar offerings.  On the other hand, it was a very weak year for movies.  American Beauty won.  There weren't a lot of movies to make up a ten movie Best Picture roster.  It wasn't a great year for movies - so Toy Story 2 did stand out.  Plus it was the first Pixar movie to top $200 million.  But it didn't get the Screenplay nod - which is always my Oscar code for "Pixar should be up for Best Picture."  So, I don't think that I can say it would be nominated - but it would be close.


Nominated for: Best Animated Feature, Best Screenplay, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing
Won: Best Animated Feature, Best Sound Editing

Ten Picture Best Picture Field
 Deserving?  Yes
Breakdown: One of the best superhero movies ever was doubly cursed in its attempt at a Best Picture nod.  It got slammed for being animated and slammed for being a superhero movie.  It was the same curse that hurt Iron Man and The Dark Knight as well.  But the Incredibles was a phenomenal movie.  It made big money ($261 million), appealed to adults BIG TIME, and showed a very different side of Pixar.  It got the Screenplay nomination - which is what the Oscars always give to Pixar movies instead of Best Picture nominations.  But this year was a great chance for Pixar to sneak in with the film.  Only twelve movies were represented in the big categories (Picture, Director, Actor/Actress, Supporting Actor/Actress).  Usually there are about sixteen films.  That means that there were not a bunch of deserving movies floating around.  Incredibles made just about every top ten list there was.  And there wasn't a clear frontrunner for Best Picture.  In a ten picture field, it would have been hard to overlook these heroes.  

5. TOY STORY (1995)

Nominated for: Best Music, Best Song, Best Screenplay 
(no animated feature award that year)

Won: Special Achievement Award for New Technology

Ten Picture Best Picture Field 
Deserving?  Yes
Breakdown: Toy Story shocked the movie industry.  It was such a departure from anything before - and it basically marked the death of traditional animation.  It was such a big deal that John Lassiter received a special achievement award - something to acknowledge how huge a movie is to the industry.  And, this also started a precedent that the Academy used on five Pixar movies.  In lieu of a deserved Best Picture slot, they get a Best Screenplay nomination.  Toy Story was an amazing movie.  It was touching and funny and gorgeous.  If the roster was expanded to ten movies, it would be easy to see Toy Story snagging a slot.  Remember, this is the year that Il Postino and Babe both RECEIVED nominations.  The Usual Suspects, Twelve Monkeys, Se7en, Dead Man Walking, and Leaving Las Vegas all got left out.  I think that the 10 spots would have actually gotten those five, plus Toy Story, in  - while knocking out one of the two dumb nominations.  Braveheart still would have won.


Nominated for: Best Animated Feature, Best Music, Best Sound, Best Sound Editing, Best Screenplay
Won: Best Animated Feature

Ten Picture Best Picture Field 
Deserving?  Yes
Breakdown: Ratatouille should have been a disaster.  It was the third lowest grossing Pixar film (a pathetic $206 million).  They couldn't merchandise it to death, because it was a bunch of rats.  But, when you stripped down the product tie-ins, the inevitable theme park attraction, you had a very special movie that was so moving and tender.  It began what has actually been the glory days of Pixar - three movies in three years that all legitimately deserved a Best Picture nominations.  But they actually all deserved that nomination in a field of five - not just a field of ten.  All three got Best Screenplay nominations, Top ten rankings, raving reviews.  I remember thinking that Ratatouille was easily one of the best movies out there.  And it was a pretty weak year for movies.  It easily could have taken Juno's spot in the five picture field.  And there is no doubt it would have been in with a ten film field.  And, I am still not convinced that it wasn't the best film of the year.  

3. FINDING NEMO (2003)

Nominated for: Best Animated Feature, Best Music, Best Sound Editing, Best Screenplay
Won: Best Animated Feature

Ten Picture Best Picture Field 
Deserving?  Yes
Breakdown: Nemo took Pixar to the next level.  It still is the highest grossing Pixar film - over $330 million.  The film itself was touching and heartbreaking and hilarious and very special.  This was the first Pixar film that really stirred debate over whether an animated film could make it into the big show.  (There is that Screenplay code nomination.)  I remember that 2003 was a pretty weak year for movies because the third Lord of the Rings movie was coming out.  The first two had been nominated and passed over.  And it was pretty well understood that the third one was going to win everything - which it certainly did.  So a lot of studios pulled their movies out of that year.  Aside from the five nominated, only Cold Mountain and House of Sand and Fog were close to getting nominations.  There was no way Nemo was going to win, but then again neither were the other four movies that made it.  Nemo definitely would have been in the top ten - and realistically should have bumped Seabiscuit out of the top five.  

2. UP (2009)

Nominated for: Best Animated Feature, Best Music, Best Sound Editing, Best Picture, Best Screenplay
Won: Nothing

Ten Picture Best Picture Field 
Deserving?  Yes
Breakdown: Pixar finally lucked out with the expansion to a ten film field.  Did it deserve its spot?  Oh, yes it did.  When you compare it to the other films, it easily deserves to be there.  I honestly think it was good enough to be in a field of five.  The first ten minutes of the movie was as good as most movies I have seen.  I could have walked out after the opening scenes and felt like I had seen a great and touching film.  The rest of the movie was even better - exciting, emotional, funny, thoughtful.  And I'm glad it got the nomination.  Would it have gotten a spot in a field of five?  Nope.  It would have gotten its Screenplay nomination and gone on its way.  And this year it has no chance of winning Best Picture.  But at least it finally broke its way into the club.

1. WALL-E (2008)

Nominated for: Best Animated Feature, Best Song, Best Music, Best Sound, Best Sound Editing, Best Screenplay
Won: Best Animated Feature

Ten Picture Best Picture Field 
Deserving?  Yes
Breakdown: For the first half of WALL-E, there was hardly any dialogue.  It was mostly just electronic noises as means of communication between two robots.  But there has hardly been a movie that communicated more.  It was a touching movie about love and loyalty and responsibility.  It was a warning to us to be careful with our planet.  The movie was beautiful and touching and glorious.  And it got robbed.  It didn't just deserve to be in a ten movie field.  It deserved to be in a five movie field.  And it deserved to win.  The two best movies of 2008 didn't even get a nomination - The Dark Knight and WALL-E.  The Reader was relentlessly depressing.  Benjamin Button got a C from tons of media outlets in their reviews.  There is no good reason why WALL-E got left out except that it was animated.  It is my personal favorite.  I think it was better than Up, but the score between the top four Pixar movies is separated by decimal points.  A ten film field would have easily put this movie into play.  And with the movies that wear actually nominated, it may have pulled off an upset.  It deserved to.

One final thing about Pixar movies.  A way to judge their Oscar-worthiness is to think about how that movie would look if it was live action and not animated.  How would that film have been received?  I know that can't work with the toys and bugs and cars.  But the basic story, applied to people.  How woud that have gone over?  I think that when you do that, you can see just how robbed Pixar was.  If Up was live action, I can guarantee that Ed Asner would bee looking at a Supporting Actor nomination.  If Ratatouille was live action, the story of a young restaurant worker and a homeless guy instead of a rat, it would have been seen as a powerful tale.  Finding Nemo - if it were people, a father searching for his lost son - would have had tons of acting awards too.  Personally I like the ten movie field because it gives movies like Pixar films a shot at Best Picture recognition.  Now, if we can just convince the voters to give them a shot at the trophy.

Feb 2, 2010

Greek to Me

I am posting this on both my blogs, and it also will trickle over to Facebook automatically.  I just wanted to announce a small change to my blog settings.  I will no longer be allowing anonymous comments.  I've never liked anonymous comments.  But I left them.  Recently, though, I've been getting a bunch of spam comments telling me about High Yield investments and where to find raunchy pics.  So, now you have to be a registered user.  Sorry if that is annoying, but I have to do something.  Obviously, this doesn't apply to Facebook - since you have to be registered to even see what my stuff says.

Now to the real post.  Today, Oscar nominations came out.  Which naturally got me thinking about Greek yogurt.  Have you tried this stuff?  I'm serious.  As part of my new approach to food and health, I have been on a very regimented diet.  For over two weeks now, I have not had soda, sugar, cheese, bread, starches.  For breakfast I have plain lowfat yogurt with fruit.  Lunch is meat (turkey, chicken, beef) with fruit and spinach - usually some sort of salad concoction.  Dinner is meat with spinach or other veggie.  Snacks are fruit and nuts.  I've lost twenty pounds in two weeks.  And, more importantly, I'm actually breaking my dependence on certain foods.  (This is all documented in great detail on my Darth Fatso Must Die blog if you are interested.)

Anywho, as I have been getting my yogurt, I have noticed this section in Publix of Greek Yogurt.  I really didn't know what the difference was with Greek yogurt.  And not being the type that likes to buy things that get thrown out due to being disgusting, I just was content to keep looking at it in curiosity.  Well, this past weekend when I was at my mom's house, she had three containers of Oikos Greet Yogurt (made by Stonyfield Farms).  I had my opportunity!  I tasted the yogurt.  And, man, what a surprise.

It was a lot thicker and a little more tart than my usual plain yogurt.  Now, plain yogurt as a rule is kind of weird.  There isn't any sugar in it, so it isn't that sweet desserty taste you may be used to.  But it was almost like a sour cream.  In fact, it was a LOT like sour cream.  But the thing that is crazy about it is that it is fat free.  Huh?  It has the thickness and taste similar to a really good sour cream, except with a little more tang like a yogurt would have.  How is this possible.  Looking at the nutritional info on the side yielded more interesting discoveries.  One cup of the stuff has 130 calories - only 20 more than normal lowfat plain yogurt.  It has 0 grams of fat, 9 grams of carbs, and 23 grams of protein.  That's right.  23 GRAMS per cup.  That is the same as FOUR EGGS.

It is kind of baffling.  I guess that Greek yogurt has an extra straining process that removes the whey, which then leaves the yogurt denser and creamier.  I think it must be some kind of Greek magic - maybe something sent down from Olympus or that they got from the Oracle.  "You must go to the western edge of the great disc, battle monsters of enormous size, lose what you want most, and strain your yogurt twice."

So, I had a thought while I was making lunch.  I was sauteeing some chicken tenderloins with Italian seasoning in some olive oil, along with some spinach and tomatoes.  Basically, I was bringing it - making my usual awesome chicken.  I thought, man, that yogurt would make a good dipping sauce.  So I took some of it and mixed it with garlic powder and some of that bread dipping seasoning (you know the stuff, has four flavors in it that you dump in oil).  I was pretty generous with the garlic and seasoning.  Mixed it all up and good gravy, that was awesome.  I dipped my chicken in it - so did Heather and my sister.  My mom said, "That tastes like something you'd buy at a restaurant."  I was snickering to myself. It was so easy and actually good for you.  (I finished the sauce up that night dipping my london broil in it - just as good, I'll have you know.)

So I got a flash of brilliance.  This yogurt could easily sub in for sour cream.  What an awesome veggie dip - to mix in the ranch seasoning packet in with the yogurt instead.  You could make up a tzatziki sauce (that stuff you put on gyros) by adding cucumbers and garlic.  You could add lemon juice and dill.  What an awesome option.  At the same time, I had discovered Boathouse Farms' dressings.  They use yogurt to make ranch dressing and other creamy dressings.  They have fewer calories, fat, and carbs than even Lite dressings.  And they taste like regular dressings.  So, there you have it.  Yogurt, especially Greek yogurt.  Give it a try.

This post was not a paid advertisement by the Greek Yogurt producers of America.  However, if the GYA wants to pay me to advertise, I am not above shilling myself.  For the right price, I'll make my van look like a big tub of yogurt.  Shoot, I would dress up like a gyro if they wanted me to.  All in the effort for full disclosure.