Saturday, August 25, 2012

HEY KOOL AID- The OG of energy drinks

When I was a kid I had an energy drink that couldn’t be beat. It allowed me to climb trees, run, swim, bike ride and in general play for hours on end without tiring. The funny thing is it practically looks like health food when compared to its counterpart of today.

I’m talking Kool Aid. Now when I say Kool Aid I don’t mean “rich people” Kool Aid with the sugar already added. I mean broke-assed gallon of water, glass jug, cup of sugar, little packet, funnel and shake it like Katharine Hepburn standing on a paint mixer  until your arms go numb and the sugar still hadn’t dissolved Kool Aid.  I mean damn, we probably burned the 87 calories a 12 ounce glass has just by shaking it!

My brother and I would tear into a fresh jug of Kool Aid with the drinking acumen usually reserved for Irish brick layers. By the time the last couple sips were left we would secretly ration it like people stranded in the desert because neither of us wanted to make the next batch. I often drank some and then added a bit of water so as to leave it at the proper level…a trick that would serve me well in my late teen years.

This wasn’t always the go to drink as most of the time getting Kool Aid made by my brother or I required at least one wrestling match, a beating handed out by either myself or my brother… to either myself or my brother, some kind of shouting contest and a very high hot and humid to thirsty ratio. So most of the time we drank spring water that my parents/my brother and I got once a week from the spring in Yale Forest.I wasn’t a big fan of water knowing what fish had done in it, but I imagined it beat the alternative of drinking from the toilet like our dog would do if the seat was left up.

Today I see kids and young adults drinking one of a number of different energy drinks. I won’t bother to name them all but suffice it to say I’ve tried several and they taste of something between cough syrup and what I can only imagine a can of stale ass tastes like. They gulp this stuff down can after can, and by can I mean barrel. Some of them hold as much as 32 liver rattling ounces. They got stickers, t-shirts and hats with claw marks, skulls, and rabid looking animals on them as promotional/advertising swag.

The cans are emblazoned with all the “good” stuff they got going on in the can to ensure you of how AWESOME the drink is for you. They spend a goodly number of words on the outside of the can to comfort you in the fact that you’re about the biggest bad ass on the planet for drinking this product and anybody who isn’t …is a candy ass! Uh, forgive me I’m paraphrasing a teensy bit. The thing they don’t spend much time on is the amount of sugar that’s in the can… in some cases as much as one hundred plus grams. Twenty nickels weigh one hundred grams, and I’ll bet they are better for you.

The fact that at least one manufacturer listed glucose as part of its “energy mix” made me laugh out loud. What does that make the nearly eight hundred mg of sodium…Mega Electrolytes? The good news is it has a ton of B vitamins; the bad news is vitamin B is inhibited from absorption when potassium is present. One of these drinks has 2,160 mg of potassium added….oops! Guess they’d been better off taking a chemistry class as opposed to a marketing one.   

I wouldn’t mind so much if I didn’t hear every five minutes how children in this country were obese. Do you think taking in all these calories in combination with an exercise routine that amounts to thumb wrestling with the x-box controller is in some way exacerbating this problem? Or am I being silly for using logic here?!I’ve already said I think the nanny state need not be concerned if I want to free-base sticks of butter and main-line melted down starburst fruit chews so I’m not looking for legislation.

But how about if the parents decide to act on their own accord, yanking the video game power cord out of the wall, taking away the one pound bag of skittles and the super extreme thunder animal energy drink and tells them to go outside and play? I know what you’re thinking; I’ll go back in and complain that you’re bored and there’s nothing to do.

In my house this would have gotten me invited to a “something to do” marathon of weeding and cord wood cutting. Maybe you’ll get lucky and get pat on the belly and a bag of cheese puffs…either way do yourself a favor and go get some Kool Aid when you get thirsty.

I'm not saying people should drink more Kool Aid...I personally haven't had it since I was maybe a senior in High school as it's not easy to get a girl to kiss you when you're sporting a Kool Aid mustache. But for less than 10 cents a glass you'd look like less of an ass by spending three dollars and ninety cents more for something that's worse for you and taste like the stuff they use to flavor cod liver oil.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Chefs, Restaurateurs? ... meet Twitter

Before I begin I'd like to give a shout out and a big thanks to a friend of mine and Saint Louis' own Evan Benn. for helping me understand editing in only a way a six year old would understand it...which is apparently the way I needed it, on a spoon. That's all I can say for now as I've now gone over 900 words...sorry Evan.

A week or so ago I gushed about how well established Saint Louis’s Twitter community is, then bemoaned New England’s Twitter scene …but I was hopeful. It turns out I had no idea just how awful the New England Twitterverse really was. In fairness I need to do more digging in the more metropolitan areas like Boston, Portland, Hartford and Providence before I call it a total loss. That being said, since I did that story I have been searching to find chefs that are using Twitter as it should be used: effectively and engagingly. So far I have found exactly four. I know there must be more out there. Right?

Here’s all you have to do to become Twitter savvy:

Sign Up
Yes, that’s right: Get a Twitter account. Don’t be “that guy.” You know the one. He's the same guy who refuses to espouse WiFi because “dial-up works just fine,” and the same guy who still has a clamshell flip-phone. Don't be him. Embrace the technology and social media because it’s quick, painless, (mostly) free and – most important – here to stay. Come on, genius, you can tourné a carrot, you have all the skill you need to open and use a Twitter account.

Being a New Englander, I understand we can be stubborn and resistant to change. But when someone asks on Twitter about the special you're running that night, take a second out of your prep work and answer them. When your cooks ask questions, you spend minutes if not hours a day answering them. Cooks don’t make you money but the customer does, so take a few moments and communicate. You don’t have to respond to every tweet; don’t feel like you have to. It's a learning process, but once you get into the rhythm you’ll find Twitter to be invaluable.

Twitter is not a popularity contest, unless of course you’re an actor or politician. Twitter is a succinct means to communicate with people and places that interest you, like other chefs or restaurants. It’s a means to entertain, gather and disseminate information. Not following people is like choosing to be blind to what’s going on around you. Go ahead, follow all the famous restaurants and chefs you want to, but then follow your local chefs and maybe some regulars. This will create a mutual feeling of loyalty because you are showing that you actually care about your patrons.

Twitter Is Not a Billboard
Twitter is like having a face-to-face conversation with each and every follower. You wouldn’t walk up to a customer or friend and say, “Cookies are three for $1!” and then not say anything else. Now don’t go getting all squirrelly on me, there are exceptions. For example, aside from dialogue with customers Doug Sohn of @hotdougs in Chicago uses Twitter to post his weekly specials…once a week. People want to be talked to and not “at” so keep the hawking to a bare minimum. If you want to introduce something you feel your customers might be interested in, introduce it as a special. Answer price questions only when asked. Remember Twitter is a relationship builder and you are a friend, not a huckster.

Do Not Let Someone Tweet For You
Nobody knows your business or your passion for that business like you do. If you had a Ferrari and absolutely loved driving it, would you let me drive it for you when you didn’t have time? That’s what @SocialKitchenNH  and other companies like it would have you do, and on top of them driving your Ferrari they’ll also ask you to give them gas money.

These companies have restaurants pay them to shill without any customer interaction. They get new clients partly because people are scared or unfamiliar with Twitter. They would lead you to believe they are experts in this field and only they have the expertise to run your Twitter account. In my opinion they’re frauds pushing the next Y2K scam, but this time with no expiration date.

You won’t be able to fix every problem you find on Twitter just by responding. I mean, some people would complain if you hung them with brand new rope. But being the voice of reason and showing you care enough to respond is sometimes all a customer wants. They want you to be accessible. “Sorry you didn’t enjoy your app @JoeBobbleHead Please come back so we can give you the experience you deserve. We appreciate the opportunity to earn your business.”

When people you follow have something informative or entertaining to tweet…re-tweet it! Known as a “RT” in the Twitterverse, it's a simple way to pass on someone else's comment to your followers with the touch of a button.  You’re not a clown after all and nobody is expecting you to be the only entertainment source.

The Bottom Line
Twitter is as easy as falling out of a boat. It’s a tool you can use a little or a lot. Either way your relationship with your customers will foster respect and loyalty because you’re not only feeding their bellies, but their hearts as well. Twitter may not make you the next @Mariobatali , but it will sure as hell help you and your restaurant by expanding your name, brand and your reputation by knowing your customers’ needs and how to service them.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Food Writing 101

I have been doing a lot of reading about writing as of late. I have read some pretty handy things from some very learned people with multiple degrees in writing, communication and literature. Look, I’ll be the first person to admit I don’t know shit about writing…hell, I barely know anything about shinola. I went into this quest for knowledge to improve my writing, and in fairness I have learned a few things. However I came out fully confident that there are a lot of people in the writing word that should have saved the money from all their advanced degrees, and bought themselves a lifetimes supply of snow cones and a mood ring for all the good it did them.

The following are six main talking points I keep seeing over and over again from writing experts that I don’t happen to agree with. I’ll do my best to guide you through them so they don’t become overwhelming. I’ll tell you what the experts say then I’ll break that down and give you one line that you may actually find useful. When we’re done with all of it and you think you’re ready to write. Go ahead and print off a copy of these helpful tips. Crinkle them up really tight a few times until the paper becomes somewhat soft and then unwrinkled it as best you can. Once you’ve done that you’re ready to wipe your ass with it. I’m pretty sure that’s what Ernest Hemingway would have done…

1)      What the experts say: Writers are generally introverts and you probably are as well, and you should use this to your advantage.

What I say: I love, no wait, LOVE… speaking in public and I’ve been doing it since I was I believe ten.  I had to give a five minute memorized speech in front of a crowd of about five-hundred people involved in scouting. This is something I’ve always enjoyed doing because you get instant feedback as to whether the subject you are talking about is flying, or collecting crickets. There are audible as well as visual clues as to how you are being received. When things are good, my “id” and I are giving each other high fives! When people are not getting what you’re trying to get across…it is time to dig deeper. So yeah…not an introvert…Sorry.

The Breakdown: Ted Kaczynski was an excellent writer, a genius and an introvert which he used very much to his advantage…But it was never much fun to open his letters.

2)      What the experts say: Writing can be therapeutic, but it shouldn’t be therapy.

What I say: I really began writing about food on December 30th of last year 2011 my late father’s birthday. To be honest that’s the first day I really began writing about anything. I had always hated writing and in high school putting pen to paper was always a struggle. With my father and a couple glasses of Jameson both gone, I was watching an old episode of the French Chef thinking about the influence food had in my life. Food was one of those passions my father and I had shared and it became a means of communication for when there were rough patches. It was something we could always talk about.

So on a whim I said “what the hell” The cat for once wasn’t using the computer, and I had a couple hours to kill. At that point I had a Blogger account for a couple years and had never written anything. I wrote a story in about an hour and edited it by re-reading it once and then posted it. I sent it to a room of friends and on my home page in Facebook because as there was nobody to talk to here at home, and The Cat isn’t much of a listener besides.

For once in my life I had something to say that wasn’t verbal, it was mental.  The best part was putting the words down in a manner that made the most sense until it was exactly what I wanted to say. Being able to twist every last drop of meaning out of those words until it was, for me…perfect. That is something you don’t get from talking or speaking to a group of people unless it is a prepared written speech…a second chance.

The breakdown: Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation. ~ Graham Greene

3)      What the experts say: Respect your boundaries and when you go beyond them use that as a “learning experience.”

What I say: The only boundaries there are in writing are the edges of the paper. The people who tell you “you should do this” or “never do that” are usually self-important pompous asses with either too many degrees or were good enough to have been published at least once. My guess is that these “absolutes” are being perpetuated by professors who’s only published works are those their students are forced to buy at the beginning of each semester.

My grammar may not be the best and my punctuation may give English majors nervous breakdowns, but don’t ever say there are limits. People may never read what you write either but that’s beside the point. You need only sit down with a blank sheet of paper and a pen, or a computer and a keyboard if you’ve got one handy…and start writing. That’s the beauty of this technology driven world, you can have nothing but unreadable crap that a four year old could string together or otherwise utter drivel …and still find an audience willing to read the crap that’s flowing onto your paper or screen.  I’m pretty sure that’s how E.L. James’ “Fifty Shades of Grey” got published.  

The Breakdown: “…I like to think of anything stupid I've done as a "learning experience." It makes me feel less stupid.” ~ P.J. O’Rourke

4)      What the experts say: Hone your art like a chef hones their knife.

What I say: I don’t consider writing art… unless you’re a poet. Just like professional cooks are not artists. Yes I believe there is a certain art like component to both as you are in fact “creating” something. This is the result I believe, of learning/using certain skill sets that you’ve refined to your own esthetic and used time and time again to achieve specific results. This is why I believe writing/cooking are “crafts” as these are things a crafts-person does. Craftspeople build the foundations and the walls and the roofs…artists hang color and canvas on the structure.

The breakdown: Ars longa, vita brevis, which means “Art is long, Life is short.” This was said by a group of people who aren’t around anymore. So you can either spend a lot of time futzing with what you’ve written, or you can say what you want and go have a beer before you’re too dead to drink it!

5)      What the experts say: Find your audience.

What I say: I find writing to be more of a cathartic experiencing and I do it for myself. I don’t have expectations as to what others may think of something I write as long as I’m happy with it. I doubt very much J.D. Salinger pained himself over his own writing except the end result had to be pleasing to him and him alone. I met the man on several occasions and trust me when I tell you he was a curmudgeon of the highest order and an S.O.B. besides. To say he was not concerned with finding anybody whatsoever, would be an understatement of epic proportions.

P.J. O’Rourke is in my estimation a very good writer and he writes to his “style” which is to say, not much style at all. Writing about things he finds interesting with little to no regard of his readership which I’m sure is why he wrote a book report of sorts on “The Wealth of Nations.” Sure he writes mostly political satire and humor regarding his travels over the years as a journalist but that’s his aesthetic. He writes about his experiences and if you like that then fine. If you don’t maybe you need to pick up a Tom Brown novel and get the hell out of the humor section.

The Breakdown: Write what you want to write about, if people went around wondering what people wanted to hear all the time The Beatles would have come up with MMMBop First!

6)      What the experts say: Ask yourself… what do your readers want?

What I say: The notion that a writer has to in fact “pander/adjust” to others who read their work is absurd in my estimation.  Yes I guess some folks need to be told “Hey you use the word Yummo one more time and someone is either gonna slap you, or give you a TV show” or other self-edit skills… but really….they should just be true to themselves. Do you think that Jim Morrison of The Doors went around asking his audience what they wanted to hear?! Granted you could barely understand him with his drunken slurring and was so damned high besides, he probably wouldn’t remember what you said had you answered anyway.

The other “art like” thing writing has are critics. Like art critics, writing critics are there for the simple fact that they were too big to be a true parasite and live off other beings in a true parasite like manner. So they decided to take something so subjective and so personal as writing and make a living telling “sheep” if someone’s writing is good or not. Trust me when I tell you these people know as much about writing as I know about scrimshaw,  and I’m not sure they even know that much.

The Breakdown: The only time I like to hearGive The People What They Wantis when it’s sung by the Kinks.

I probably have forty or fifty more platitudes and hollow empty phrases that I’ve seen again and again over the past couple of weeks but it all comes down to this. What are you trying to achieve with your writing? If you’re looking to write about what you’re cooking and hoping a few family and friends see it then great. Write whatever your heart desires.

If you’re looking to get a little more appeal… maybe clean up your punctuation a bit and look around at other people you like and what they are doing then take a few cues from length and style but for the love of the Jamaican Bobsled Team, make it your own.

If you want to get your own TV show or be published, then go ahead and take 20 more writing classes and be like 90 percent of the food writers out there. Be a heartless soulless also-ran with nary a creative/original bone in your body. Listen to those experts I mean why not, everybody’s doing it. But I guarantee in the process you’ll lose yourself, you’ll lose what makes your writing enjoyable, you’ll become…the lowest common denominator, you’ll become…Hanson.

P.S. I’ll end on an ellipse…Because I’m not supposed to…