Sunday, May 31, 2009

From the fertile soil of Roland Garros....

Rafael Nadal just can't stop sticking it to Roger Federer.

Usually it's by winning, but now the obnoxiously talented Spaniard has done both Roger and the rest of the world a disservice by losing his first ever match at Roland Garros. Nadal not only deprived us of yet another electrical final, but if Federer does win the French this year, there will undoubtedly be legions of writers and fans who are ready to throw up an asterisk next to the victory because he didn't have to beat Nadal to do it.

Of course, any even casual tennis fan looks forward to Federer-Nadal finals, but this year and this Slam are of particular interest to me. There are several reasons for this.

1. The French Open is probably my favorite tennis event. I studied in Paris and am an unapolegetic Francophile. As cliched as it is, nothing beats Paris in the spring. I always picture Parisiens eating their bread and coffee in cafes and enduring the familiar yet alien smell of the festering Metro to ride to the stadium to cheer on their favorite players (including Andy Roddick?!). The trees are blooming and they're probably eating a lot better than me*.

There's also something about Roland Garros. Maybe it's because the clay is so bright and red and different from the other surfaces, and it's fun to watch the players get dirt all over themselves when they're sliding around for balls. Maybe it's because there's some connection to the soil that is evoked and that clay--like grass--takes so much care that it's almost like agriculture, that it generates something more visceral in us than watching sports on concrete. Maybe it's the knowledgable and undeniably French crowd that makes the event so fun. I really don't know what it is, but I love the goddamn French Open.

2. Federer is my favorite tennis player. I share David Foster Wallace's obsession with seeing him hit shots that are seemingly impossible, doing so with grace and class and what looks like little effort.

Federer has also never won a French Open.

He certainly is talented enough and has pretty much dominated every other event in tennis. But right when he had tuned his game enough to win one in Paris (and potentially all four Grand Slams in one year), a young, butt-picking Spaniard wearing a tank top and capri pants emerged on the scene and dominated the event with Federer-esque ease. Nadal had not lost even one match at Rolan Garros until now.

So whenever the French Open comes around, I get excited for Roger to get the final feather in his cap and cement his legacy as not just another Pete Sampras, who can dominate on grass and concrete so easily that it's almost to the detriment of the sport but can't get it done on the trickiest surface in the sport. Federer may indeed get it down this year, but his naysayers will always point to the fact that he never had to beat the surface's arguably best player of all time to do it.

3. Ever since I read this article about how Federer owes Nadal a debt, I have become obsessed not only with Federer eventually beating the younger and stronger Nadal, but doing it at the French Open in dramatic fashion. To sum up the article, the writer makes the point that every great individual sport athlete needed a foil. Fans don't like watching coronations and choreography; they prefer struggle and drama.

Without his struggles later in his career, Ali might never have become the beloved champion that he is. Without Frazier, Ali would not be Ali. The same could eventually hold true for Federer if he manages to eventually get the best of Nadal. Rafa will have pushed him to places he never would have gone when he was mowing over opponents without dropping a set, which he did at the 2007 Australian Open. Sure, Roger has beaten Nadal before, but recently it has looked like Rafa was destined to cruelly rip the Slam record from Roger's grasp and brutally relegating him to second banana status. People would say, "Federer was pretty good for a while, but only because it was before Nadal came around."

I openly cried right along with Roger at the Australian Open when it seemed that he might have nothing in the tank and that he might never win another Major. That article made me realize that Nadal's claiming of the number one ranking wasn't the end. It was just the beginning.**

For whatever reason, I just had a feeling about this year. I had the whole thing scripted out in my mind. Roger would dry his tears and hunker down after the Australian Open. He would rethink his strategy and push himself harder than he ever has before, maybe even hire a coach to help him. Nadal--better than ever--would seem unbeatable. Every major writer and expert would say that Federer had no shot at all at beating Nadal. They would point to the beatdown from last year's French Open Final and the Australian Open and say that Federer just couldn't beat Nadal anymore and that he should probably just retire. Federer and Nadal would both oblige and cruise through the tournament to meet in final. Roger would then come out and struggle in the beginning of the final and dig himself into a two-set whole, setting off one of the greatest and most improbable comebacks in tennis history. Federer would finally cement his legacy by tying Sampras's record at the event Sampras could never win, beating the one oponent he couldn't beat, all while finding value in adversity and winning over the last few people who don't love him.

Great story, but alas, Nadal has left us wondering what could have been. Maybe he lost his Samsonian power by taking off his manpris or he got too complacent or he just had a bad day, or...whatever, he blew it and couldn't get past Robin freaking Soderling.

I'm sure there will be lots of speculation about would have happened in the Finals. As for me, if Roger does win it, I'll be thinking a lot about what happened two weeks ago in Madrid, when Federer beat Nadal. On clay. In Rafa's home country.

*The French, not the trees.
**I also just realized from typing that paragraph that I need to turn in my man card for crying at tennis.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Kansas City: Leading the pack yet again

The mighty Paris of the Plains is getting ready to unveil a one-of-a-kind garden, which seems at first glance to be a combo art gallery and science museum for agriculture. Michael Pollan was given a sneak peek and seemed to be more than impressed by the greatest city in the world's newest contribution to society.

Powell Gardens, which is just outside the city, has spent $9.2 million to produce a 12-acre garden that will used to teach visitors about how food is grown and to inspire them to eat real food. The "edible landscape" is the largest and first of its kind and will open June 14th to the public. No surprise to anyone familiar with the city that Kansas City would be leading the way on this as it has in countless other arenas. (By the way, according to the article, Pollan's crowd at Unity Temple was the largest of his book tour).

Also, check out The Star's photo gallery. The place looks like it will be more a teaching tool than anything, which is good because most actual farms are far too busy and ill-equipped to center their businesses around education. Hopefully people will come to Powell Gardens and then go volunteer on a farm or perhaps even turn part of their lawns into more productive green space.

I, for one, can't wait to get back to the Midwest and check out the newest monument to sustainable agriculture*.

* As well as eat some real BBQ and check out the new K.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Take back farmland from the city

From the often despicable SF Weekly comes a story about reclaiming urban land for green purposes. Apparently there are laws on the book that will allow you to tear up the sidewalk in front of your property--even if you are a renter so long as you get your landlord's signature. PlantSF, an organization dedicated to urban renewal, will even link you to the forms you need to alert the city of your plans.

There are, of course, several catches: 1. There must still be four feet of sidewalk left for people to walk on, and 2. There is a one-time fee of $215 (less if you can get more of your neighbors to go along with your plan).

Certainly, this will take some time to recoup your investment (especially if bums or other interlopers run off with your crop), but what a great way to turn some worthless concrete into some productive green space. And if you have received a 30-day Notice to Repair from the city, then there really is no excuse not to put that repair money toward the permit fee.

PlantSF will hook you up. Get on it.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Real Reason We Love to Cook

Great post from Ruhlman on a great article in the New York Times about working with your hands and how cooking helped us evolve. I don't really have much to say about it other than please, please, please read what these brilliant men have to say.

"The Omnivore's Dilemma" a Controversial Book?

Apparently, The Omnivore's Dilemma was selected, then deselected, then selected again at Washington State for some sort of freshman reading list. WSU is a former land grant school (like K-State), so I'm sure agricultural issues are a big deal there.

The first comment on the blog is from an agricultural lawyer who says that it was a shame that the book was dropped because more discourse is a good thing, but the young lawyer also goes out of his way to paint Pollan as one of the most biased reporters on the topic. Another friend of mine asked me the other day if Pollan was super pretentious when I saw him speak. At the time, I thought it was a rather out-of-left-field question, but maybe now it makes a little more sense.

Is Pollan seen as an elitist member of the Liberal Media who has an axe to grind with industrial agriculture? I never even knew that this was a viewpoint held by anyone. He certainly doesn't paint the system with a positive brush, but I see little bias in his reporting. It seems to me that he often presents the point of view of agribusiness*.

My grandparents are traditional farmers, and I know a great deal about their point of view. I think they and their fellow farmers are adequately represented in Pollan's books. In fact, I see him as an advocate of any traditional farmers like my grandparents. He sees problems with the system that tells them what to grow.

Then again, I've never been very good at spotting bias in The Media, so maybe I'm not the best judge of what's straight truth-telling and what is "pusing an agenda."

* Right before he debunks it.

Saturday, May 23, 2009


In what is surely one of the most bizarre and aggressive marketing campaigns in the history of advertising, Bacardi® tried to seduce me caveman-style with sheer, brute force. For better or for worse, they definitely got my attention by clubbing me over the head, but I'm not sure they managed to drag me back to their cave to consummate the relationship.

For those who didn't attend the Ghostland Observatory show at the Mezzanine last night, the event was so inundated by Bacardi® propaganda that in retrospect, I can't believe admission wasn't free.

The ad wizards at Bacardi® decided the best method to endear me to their product was to take away my beloved whiskey and microbrews and replace them with [cornfield-like] row after row of fermented sugar cane. My choices were either sobriety or Bud Light® and rum drinks*.

There literally wasn't a drop of bourbon or pale ale in the house, so I'm sure you can imagine how thrilled I was.

My compensation for suffering this indignity? A plastic baggie filled with metal coins embossed with the rum giant's corporate logo that could be traded for Bacardi® merchandise, such as freshly screen-printed crappy white T-shirts, crappy Bacardi® posters, and cheesy photo-booth pictures which I'm sure were tagged with the nefarious organization's signature markings. Pretty cool, right?

I wonder if Bacardi® also pays the Haitians who cut their sugar cane in the same funny money to be used at the campesino store. Thanks for the 16 hours of hard work, fellas. Now go get yourself a Bacardi® beach towel and a pint of rum to take back to your shanties.

So what are we to take from this experience, other than that supply seems to drive demand when it comes to the industrial food and beverage complex? Has the government started to subsidize sugar cane? Is rum making a Prohibition-like comeback? Are alcoholic monocultures the wave of the future? How much responsibility should The Mezzanine and Ghostland Observatory share in this debacle?

Those questions are probably best answered by somebody smarter than me. All I know is that I probably won't be drinking Bacardi® for a long, long time**.

Nice backfire, marketing guys.

* I opted for a steady diet of mojitos.
** Possibly ever.

Friday, May 22, 2009

More proof that the Internet is allsome.

In an article in today's Wired, the magazine highlights a Bay Area start-up with an aim to connect small farms to restaurants through a type of social networking site.

With a suite of mobile apps for use in restaurants and on farms, FarmsReach wants to create an online food marketplace that would directly connect farms with restaurants.

“The food supply industry is ripe for ‘disintermediation’ because of the internet,” said Alistair Croll, a startup consultant working with FarmsReach. In other words, middlemen beware: Food could undergo a transition like the one that swept through classified ads, air travel and dozens of other industries.

If it catches on, this could be a boon to farmers, restaurants and eaters everywhere. But I say why limit it to restaurants. Wouldn't connecting smaller, local grocery stores make as much, if not more, sense?

Better to get this good food directly to people's stomachs at the lowest cost possible, which usually doesn't involve a chef's expertise and a wait staff. I love to eat out as much as the next person, but I'd much rather be able to get good produce from a local farm at my neighborhood grocery store for when I missed the weekly farmer's market. Maybe there is already an answer to this that has to do with distributor contracts or bullshit USDA regulations?

Still, this is great news. Maybe with the help of the Internet, my favorite burrito places can afford to use local produce and meat and keep costs low. And then I won't feel guilty for supporting CAFOs and Big Agribusiness when I'm eating my second Super Burrito al Pastor on the day.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Prohibition making a comeback?

The Puritanical forces of evil fire another shot across the bow of all that is good and fun:

Apparently Bottom of the Hill and other SF music venues aren't selling enough old hot dogs and soggy pizzas to satisfy the California Alcoholic Beverage Control's stringent demands for how much food a MUSIC venue has to sell. Despite not having many (or sometimes any) complaints on their liquor licenses, Slim's, Great American Music Hall, Cafe du Nord, and Bottom of the Hill are in jeopardy of not having their liquor licenses renewed.

That's right, the same people who brought you patrolling bars to dole out MIPs and issuing three-figure fines to pimply faced cashiers who lazily sell beer without checking IDs are now threatening some of the city's best music venues. In these times of economic hardship, the ABC has decided to target small businesses that are making this community vibrant and creative.

Way to go, ABC, let's make sure 18-year-olds have no place to hang out at night. We all know they get into less trouble when they're roaming the streets and public parks. Much better than letting them listen to some live music.

Notes from a food desert....

Two firsts last night: First time at the gorgeous Fox Theater in Oakland and first time seeing The Decemberists. Both exceeded my expectations.

The Fox is a beautiful and comfortable enough venue to warrant a trip no matter who is playing:

I can't speak highly enough about this place. The concourses are spacious, there are plenty of concession stands (being able to take beer into the theater was an unexpected surprise), and the seats were more comfortable than most office chairs. Plus, it looks like a museum or a place to see opera--definitely a nice change from the flop houses and gin joints I'm used to.

As for the music, I was happy to finally see this band with Rachel, who has long been a fanatic. We didn't know what to expect after listening to the NPR podcast of their performance at SXSW. I figured there was a chance they would play the new album, Hazards of Love, but I wasn't really ready for it when it happened.

The whole first set was basically a rock opera, full of seamless segues and instrument changes. The tone of the songs changed from lighter country to almost heavy metal and somehow managed to all make sense. What an ambitious undertaking for a band almost always primarily described as "literate."

My only wish was that I was down on the floor, so I could have started head banging and bowling over the hipsters who were mostly standing there with their arms crossed, but alas, we had decent balcony seats. The tight jeans crowd was spared my wrath for at least one more night.

Full review from the Mercury News.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Can efficiency be a bad thing?

Despite having a profound mistrust of those with blind faith in the Free Market, principles of economics often do make a lot of sense in almost every arena of life--if applied correctly. Generally, the ultimate goal in free market economics is efficiency: when the dance between suppliers and consumers results in perfect harmony and production proceeds at the lowest per unit cost.

This morning I was reading Michael Pollan (a current daily ritual), and the author marvels at the brutal efficiency of our industrial food system. With a mere 1 million farmers, we are able to feed nearly 300 million hungry consumers. For a handful of quarters, a customer at McDonald's can get more calories than most people in Africa consume in a day*.

From an energy**-cost perspective, this is remarkably efficient. There was a time when food was scarce, calories were much harder to come by, and calorie binging then made much more sense.

But,, if you are asking yourself whether this calorie surplus is actually beneficial to the modern consumer, you probably wouldn't be alone. This seems to be one instance where "efficiency" can lead us down a dangerous path if all variables aren't considered when calculating what is efficient.

Read this article by Andrew Leonard about the dangers of efficiency as an end goal in the business world.

"If we are simply optimizing bad processes, efficiency as an end-goal means very little."

Hear, hear.

* I just completely made that up, but I'm 99 percent sure it's correct.
** By energy, I mean that calories are the energy that the human body needs to run.