The rip-off

Before I get started, I want to acknowledge my pettiness. I recognize that this particular juncture of history exposes all the whining herein as trivial, but I will whine regardless because it’s what’s on my mind and the site is called TedQuarters.

And, look: No one can claim dominion over takes. If you believe yourself reasonable — and I believe myself reasonable — you must understand that this world contains other reasonable people, and reasonable people presented with the same facts will often come to the same reasonable conclusions. It would be impossibly presumptuous to think yourself the only person capable of any particular take.

Over the weekend, someone sent me a link to a Barstool Sports post hailing Ricobene’s breaded steak sandwich as the greatest sandwich in America. I agree with this take, so I cannot possibly blame the taker for making it. Also, sandwiches are for the people. I want everyone in the world to be able to enjoy Ricobene’s breaded steak sandwich as I have, and I know that anything that helps that place keep churning out its incredible food is a net positive for humanity.

But part of the take in question rubbed me the wrong way. This part:

“And what’s fuckin mind bottling to me is anytime you see one of these Best Sandwiches ranking articles it’s nowhere to be found. Ever. (It’s usually because those are pay-to-play advertisements in disguise but I digress) Even in Chicago it can’t crack a top 25 for these foodie squids. Not sure if driving down to the South Side under an underpass is a deterrent or what.”

Here’s the thing: In 2015, I wrote an article for USA Today declaring the same sandwich “the best sandwich in the world.” And I wouldn’t blame this writer for missing it, except that the article turned into a whole big thing.

A bunch of Chicago food blogs and local media outlets jumped on the story, and at least one even did a follow-up about the huge uptick in business Ricobene’s saw from the article. It is the most widely read thing I’ve ever written, and the thing I’m proudest of in my professional career. On a subsequent trip to Chicago, I met with Rosario Ricobene and had perhaps the greatest conversation I’ve ever had in my life. It went like this:

“You have no idea how much that article did for us.”

You have no idea how much that sandwich has done for me.”

From at least August of 2015 through August of 2018, a poster-sized version of the article hung in the window of Ricobene’s. I haven’t been to Chicago for a while so I can’t confirm it’s still there, but it’s there in the most recent Google Street View photos. And if this Barstool writer, who claims deep familiarity with this eatery, ever stopped to read that huge copy of my article that’s hanging on the side of the place, he might’ve seen this part:

(The) sandwich failed to rank on Chicagoist’s list of top 25 sandwiches, or on a CBS Chicago list of best sandwiches in 2010 or 2012, or on top Chicago sandwich lists compiled by Thrillist and Zagat.

So, just to recap: This person, who has supposedly frequented this restaurant for years, published a bold claim about its signature sandwich that so happened to be the exact same claim published five years earlier and now posted on the window of the restaurant. In the accompanying article, he made the exact same point I did about the sandwich being overlooked by food blogs and best-sandwich lists, except now it’s not even really a good point on account of the article I wrote that is displayed on the front page of the restaurant’s website, to which he linked.

To be clear: I don’t think this counts as plagiarism. It’s just lame. I’ll allow the possibility that the writer mentioned the article and it got edited out under some Barstool Sports policy not to send traffic elsewhere, which could easily exist, but I feel confident arguing that whatever happened here is either genuinely lousy, woefully lazy, or astonishingly oblivious.

Getting ripped off sucks. It’s bound to happen if you write online for long enough, and most of the time it’s just sort of mildly annoying: Someone taking quotes from your article without linking back to it, someone posting the entire text of something you wrote on a message board somewhere. It’s a weird feeling when you’re as vain as I am, because you love to know your stuff is getting read and talked about, but you’re under pressure to generate pageviews, and it’s frustrating to see people reading your material someplace where it doesn’t count.

But fairly late in my tenure at USA Today, I got straight-up plagiarized, and it was so demoralizing that I think it ultimately played a pretty big part in ending my career there. When you read about high-profile instances of plagiarism, it’s almost always about the scandal surrounding the plagiarist, and what drove him or her to risk his reputation over it. It feels like no one ever talks to the plagiaree.

Here’s what happened: Late last May, someone called my attention to a sports newsletter from a fairly major web outlet that include a list of the Hall of Famers Mike Trout had surpassed in career WAR that month. Initially, like the person who alerted me to it, I assumed it was a case of great minds thinking alike: Though I had been posting monthly updates on the Hall of Famers Mike Trout surpassed in WAR starting in July of 2016, I obviously can’t claim ownership of Mike Trout’s greatness or baseball-reference’s leaderboards. Besides, last season ESPN.com started doing a better version of the exact same thing, and I don’t think for a second that Sam Miller or ESPN stole my idea.

But when I read further into the newsletter, something about one of its paragraphs struck me as familiar. I went back to my Trout post from the end of April, and found an extraordinarily similar paragraph.

I called out the outlet on Twitter, and the writer DM’d me to say that he was a big fan and that he had intended to quote me in the article. He apologized profusely, said he “dropped the ball process-wise,” and promised to make a note of it link to my own newsletter in his next edition.

But his story didn’t fully line up. For one thing, this “big fan” did not include me among the hundreds of people he followed on Twitter. For another, he had edited out a couple of my sentences and changed a handful of my words, which doesn’t seem like something you would do if you intended to quote someone.

Knowing that pressing the matter would cost the guy his job, I dropped it, because ultimately I just don’t care enough about policing journalistic integrity to jeopardize someone’s livelihood. And I honestly felt bad for him, mostly because he seemed so desperate when I called him out on it, but also partly because he would do it in the first place. In such circumstances, my thing has always been, “eh — I’ll have more ideas.”

But what ate at me over time, really, was what it said about my own stature as a baseball writer. I spent more than 10 years writing about baseball every damn day, and made so small an imprint on the baseball-media landscape that some dude might lift half a paragraph from me without apparent concern that anyone would notice. Do people at reputable outlets do that to, like, Tom Verducci? Would any paid, professional sportswriter expect to get away with reprinting a few sentences of Peter Gammons’ writing without attribution?

And it didn’t help that ESPN.com was also now listing the Hall of Famers Mike Trout surpassed in WAR, which, again, I believe to be totally innocent. But if three years’ worth of doing the exact same monthly post failed to land on the radar of ESPN’s baseball editors, how could I expect to ever wind up in a better sportswriting job?

It all went a long way to convincing me that my career in sports media had hit a dead end. It wasn’t by any stretch the only reason I left USA Today, but it provided concrete evidence of a long-held suspicion and emboldened me to bail.

When I think about it that way, I guess I’m happy it happened. I’ll have other ideas.

Sandwich of the Week!

This idea came from Twitter user @ArtVandelay91, to whom I am now greatly indebted.

Before I get into it, I want to at least acknowledge something. No more than 300 people will likely see this blog post, so I can’t imagine I’m at any great risk of landing on the radar of the Internet Shame Police, but there is a whole conversation going on right now about the cultural appropriation of food.

I don’t want to get into much of it, as much of it just isn’t my place to get into. But I will say that the concept of “authenticity” in food is often tenuous and almost always overrated. Food is food. Nearly all of the best foods stem from some sort of intercultural exchange — the banh mi from a particularly despicable one — and while I recognize that people can and should feel pride and passion for the foods of their cultures and the specifics of how they’re prepared, I don’t think it’s reasonable at all to argue that no one has the right to alter or incorporate or build upon those foods. Dishes evolve. It’s all fusion.

That is to say: I was not trying to make an “authentic” banh mi here. I was trying to make a burger that incorporated delicious elements from that sandwich. And I obviously didn’t make it now because this topic is in the news. I made it because I had cilantro left over from the broccoli falafel and ground pork in the freezer from Crowd Cow (where you and I can both get $25 worth of meat if you order with my referral code).

The sandwich: Banh mi burger.

The construction: A seasoned pork patty on a pretzel roll with pickled carrots and cucumbers, jalapenos, fresh cilantro, mayo and sriracha.

For the pork burgers, I pretty much followed the exact recipe the New York Times recently published for Vietnamese meatballs, except I used slightly more ginger and garlic, and it took me way longer than 20 minutes. Every recipe underestimates prep time by about half. It takes 20 minutes just for me to peel and mince two tablespoons’ worth of ginger.

Instead of shaping the pound of pork into 12 meatballs and baking them, I shaped it into five burger patties and cooked them on a cast-iron skillet. This turned out serendipitous, as I’ll explain in a minute.

Most of the banh mi-focused quick-pickling recipes I found online called for rice vinegar, but I didn’t have any. I shredded the carrots with a vegetable peeler, sliced the cucumber as thin as I could, and quick-pickled them in a mix of white vinegar and sugar, with a pinch of salt. I didn’t have any daikon radish. It’s a pandemic.

Important background information: One of the five best sandwiches I’ve ever had in my life was a pork meatball banh mi I got from a street vendor in Ho Chi Minh City in 2013. It cost the equivalent of 67 cents USD, it came wrapped in graph paper. and I have spent the last seven years alternately trying to find a banh mi anywhere close to as good and plotting my return to Vietnam.

That’s why @ArtVandelay91’s idea spoke to me, I think: The best banh mi I’d ever had was built on meatballs — not cold cuts — so a banh mi burger made a lot of sense. I can’t remember the original sandwich well enough to estimate if its meatballs tasted anything like the ones in the Times’ recipe (I sort of doubt it), and for all I know using ginger-seasoned meatballs in a banh mi is a major faux pas. But I went with it, and I’m glad I did.

What it looks like:

How it tastes: Spectacular. Completely f-ing spectacular. I have made myself a lot of sandwiches in my lifetime, and this might honestly be the best of them.

The main thing to understand is that the Times‘ Vietnamese pork meatballs make for sensational burgers when grilled on a cast-iron skillet. I don’t know the science behind why this happened — I figure it’s either the fat in the pork or the cracker crumbs mixed into the meat — but a crunchy crust formed on the outside of the patties, almost as if they’d been fried. So the patty itself provided a variety of textures and flavors, with the spicy, assertive taste of ginger standing out from the crispy, meaty, peppery, garlicky mix.

Complemented by the rest of the banh mi stuff here, it’s unbelievable. The jalapenos offer a second, more familiar source of sandwich spiciness to accompany the ginger, and it’s all balanced by the sweetness and tang of the pickled vegetables. The cilantro makes it sharp and the mayo makes it creamy, and the sriracha adds some color for the photograph.

All together, it’s an incredible, harmonious confluence of tastes and textures and temperatures, one that features flavors familiar from banh mi but isn’t exactly like any banh mi I’ve ever had before. It’s so good. Make this sandwich.

The pretzel rolls we keep getting from FreshDirect are again the unsung hero (pun vaguely intended). I don’t want to talk them up too much, and I fear the inevitable day they go the way of yeast and Nutella and hot dogs and stop being available to me.

Hall of Fame? Yes, quite.

The problem with unemployment is you can’t take a day off

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Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Since I started posting at this site again a couple months ago, it seems, a bunch of you have made it a habit to visit it regularly. Even on days I don’t tweet out links to fresh content, this site gets way more visitors than there are members of my family, and that feels awesome. If as many people as show up here every day were showing up nightly to some real-life location to hear me spew my nonsense, I would probably go on doing it forever, just for the joy of the performance.

But back in March, when I promised daily posts for the length of the quarantine, I made a series of major miscalculations.

Among them: 1) I estimated the amount of time it would take to churn out blog posts based on the amount of time it took at times in my life when I spent all of every weekday in front of a computer. I don’t do that any more, so I’m not constantly cuing up blog fodder. It’s easy to write about a Wikipedia rabbit-hole you’ve fallen down when you’re falling down three Wikipedia rabbit-holes a day. But you can’t force your way down that hole when you’re busy chasing around a toddler every morning.

2) Like a lot of Americans around my age, I am — or at least have been to date — generally spoiled by the historical circumstances of my lifetime. I did not at all consider the possibility that there’d be no clear end to the pandemic in sight by the middle of May. In my head, I figured, “Donald Trump or no, this is still the U.S. of A. in 2020; everything will be back to normal in a few weeks.” Remember, as of late March, they were still saying they might get in a full 162-game MLB season. Seems silly in retrospect.

3) I wildly underestimated both how many hours my wife would need to work during this time and how physically and mentally taxing childcare would prove without the many, many resources upon which I previously relied, namely my parents and my in-laws and playgrounds and zoos and museums and libraries and classes and bookstores.

I enjoy keeping this site active and I love that there are people out there apparently eager to read it, but I’ve got a couple of big, overwhelmingly positive life changes coming my way by the start of September and a bunch of shit I need to get together before they happen.

Also, if this is the new normal — and I really hope it isn’t — then I can’t keep letting the writing I do here prevent me from pursuing more difficult (and, ideally, more professionally viable) forms of writing. This is fun and some people seem to appreciate it, but it seems unlikely I’ll ever have another daily blogging job, so blogging daily feels like a poor way to move forward with my writing career.

As ridiculous as it sounds, I feel bad about bailing on a commitment I made to post something every day until baseball returns, but I feel worse about the current state of my kitchen floor. So from this point forward, I’ve got to dial it back. My aim is to still make two posts every week: One about a sandwich, and one about something else.

If you’ve been coming here regularly, thank you so much, and please do keep coming — just maybe not so regularly. If you are a fan of my writing, understand that my goal in slowing down here is to provide you with way more of it elsewhere, in some less complicated future.

 

Make with a cure already, nerds

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Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

Am I going to have to start doling out wedgies?

Last time I checked, it’s the year 2020, the middle of the full-blown future, and meanwhile I haven’t been able to eat at a restaurant in over two months because all the world’s best and brightest are apparently dragging their feet instead of curing this coronavirus.

No one’s asking you to invent vaccination, you geeks. Edward Jenner covered that. Just get off your Star Trek message boards, get on the shoulders of giants, and get rid of this freaking pandemic already. Do you have any idea how bored I am?

Maybe you think these things shouldn’t be rushed, and that it’s “important” to “follow protocol” and “ensure safety.” OK, Poindexter. Tell that to someone who has had a haircut since fucking February.

And yeah, I’ve heard about how scientists have made “significant progress” in figuring out how to treat and prevent the spread of the disease, but you know where significant progress gets me? Not into the goddamned movie theater, that’s for sure!

Here’s what I need before the end of the week: A 100% effective, completely safe, inexpensive, easily produced antidote. Don’t come at me with something that mitigates symptoms. I’m not trying to mitigate symptoms; I’m trying to go to spin class in a cramped, sweaty room. I need a cure, as in C-U-R-E, as in the Jonas Salk shit, the “Friday I’m In Love” shit.

Here’s what I can offer in return: Not giving you a swirlie, first and foremost, but also a Nobel prize, global adulation, a bunch of fawning magazine profiles and then, like five seconds later, all the worst things you’ve ever thought discovered and thrown back into your face to cancel you.

Get to it, dweeb. I’m almost all out of new episodes of Ozark. 

 

Friday Q&A: Taco Bell softball

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On to it:

Pitcher – Crunchy taco: The single most important quality in a rec-league softball pitcher, by far, is consistency, and no Taco Bell menu item delivers consistency like the classic crunchy taco. You know exactly what you’re getting every single time. Nothing’s more irritating than a slow-pitch softball craftsman telling you about his special spin pitches. Shut up. Shut up. You’re the Biscuit Breakfast Taco of rec softball players; your shtick sounded interesting for like 30 seconds until everyone figured out it wasn’t an upgrade over a plain old-fashioned crunchy taco. Put the ball over the freakin’ plate.

Catcher – Power Menu Veggie Bowl: It depends on the level, I guess, but a rec-league softball catcher is pretty useless. You’re not calling pitches, you’re not throwing out base-stealers, you’re probably not getting all that many plays at the plate, and in many cases, your job could be better performed by a particularly durable lawnchair. Nothing on the Taco Bell menu seems more useless than the Power Menu Veggie Bowl. Like “catcher,” it sounds strong and good. Like the rec-league softball catcher position, it probably only offers upside to the deeply hungover.

First base – Mexican Pizza: At the Major League level, first base tends to be where teams bury bad defenders. But the bar for defense is so much lower at the rec-league softball level that you really can’t stick your worst glove at first base, since the first baseman’s going to need good hands or you’re never going to get any outs. The Mexican Pizza is strong and generally great but lacks range. You can’t take a Mexican Pizza anywhere, really, as it’s tortilla discs are limp and useless by the time you get it home, and you wouldn’t even think about eating one in the car. But you want its bat in the lineup, for sure, and it’s skillful enough to .

Second base – Crunchwrap Supreme: The keystone in softball is a great position for someone who seems rangy but actually isn’t. The Crunchwrap Supreme was marketed for its portability when it first came out, but it’s quietly ungainly.

Third base – Burrito Supreme: Quietly a very important defensive position in slow-pitch softball, where hitters tend to pull the ball hard or top over slow pitches and squib weird rollers down the third-base line. With its combination of beef and beans, Burrito Supreme covers everything without carrying the excess bulk of Taco Bell rice, endemic to burritos. My one concern is that Burrito Supremes are not quite spicy enough for the “hot corner,” but one packet of Fire Sauce should clear that up. 

Shortstop – Cheesy Gordita Crunch: Shortstop plays home to practically every rec-softball team’s best player by reputation, if not by reality. Assuming that having good hands is akin to having multiple taco shells glued together by melted cheese, having good range is a lot like being covered with Spicy Ranch Sauce, and having a strong arm is the same as being filled with beef — all fair assumptions, I believe — then there’s no more obvious call than this one. There’s also an irrepressible showman ship to the Cheesy G that makes it a perfect fit for the position.

Outfield rover – Beefy Nacho Loaded Griller: If you’re playing with an outfield rover, you probably want it to be one of your best and most versatile players, if not your most heralded one. The Beefy Nacho Loaded Griller ranks with the best that Taco Bell has to offer, but never really gets credit for its excellence. I think Major League teams should use rovers, and just stand their best defender wherever the batter is most likely to hit the ball. My top dude is quietly the Beefy Nacho Loaded Griller, preferably with extra beef and additional Creamy Jalapeno sauce.

Left field – Doritos Locos Taco: A lot of New York City rec-league softball fields are squeezed into spaces so small that your left fielder will wind up standing more or less face-to-face with the right fielder from an adjacent game. For entertainment value, then, the left fielder should be the saltiest person on the team.

Center field – Beefy 5 Layer Burrito with added Crunchy Red Strips: I bet you’re sleeping on the Beefy 5 Layer Burrito, because I know I am. It’s basically a Quesarito but with refried beans instead of rice, meaning it is a handful of Crunchy Red Strips shy of having everything I want in a Taco Bell thing and nothing I don’t. Next time I go to Taco Bell, I’m getting a Beefy 5 Layer Burrito with added Crunchy Red Strips, and then I’ll come back here to tell you why it rules. Why is it playing center? Because it’s probably incredible, and you want an incredible center fielder out there. I don’t know. I didn’t sleep a lot last night and I’m actually nodding off as I type this.

Right field – Baja Blast Freeze: I could really use some caffeine and some brainfreeze to jolt myself awake, then maybe I could explain to you why Baja Blast Freeze plays right field for my Taco Bell rec softball team. It makes sense in my head, I promise.

 

Sandwich of the Week

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I eat a lot of meat, but I understand and respect vegetarianism, and I’d be fully willing to take it on if I didn’t love meat more than anything else in the world except possibly baseball and my family.

I also aim to be a man of the people, and a handful of people have requested a vegetarian option. This is it. It’s not vegan on account of the yogurt-based tzatziki I used for sauce, and also because there’s egg in the bread. But if you are, somehow, a vegan who reads the sandwich reviews on TedQuarters.net, you could pretty easily make this sandwich vegan.

The sandwich: Broccalafel!

The construction: I keep mentioning Tyler Kord’s sandwich cookbook, and I’ll do it again. It’s an amazing resource for turning things you have sitting around in your kitchen into delicious sandwiches. I don’t think I’ve yet made a single one of its sandwiches to completion, but it’s definitely in keeping with the cookbook’s aesthetic to pick and choose individual ingredients and customize sandwiches to my specifications.

The key ingredient of this sandwich comes pretty much straight from that cookbook. He calls it “broccoli falafel,” but I decided to cut out some syllables here. Broccoli falafel is made from broccoli, onion, garlic, cilantro, cumin, salt, ground coriander, chile flakes and salt, all slurried together in a food processor, rolled into balls, and fried.

Per the book’s suggestion, I made my broccoli falafel sandwich on a hot dog bun. I topped it with homemade tzatziki (from the same recipe I used here), bread and butter pickles, grilled red onions, and a squirt of sriracha. My wife put some baby spinach on hers to make it healthier. I felt like I was already eating a sandwich built around broccoli and shouldn’t push it.

Important background information: Most of the time, I’m a pretty balanced person, psychologically speaking. But every so often, some stupid little thing upsets me, and I fall into these awful, dizzying spirals of anger or frustration or self-doubt or sadness. And for whatever reason, few things cast me into the darkness quite as quickly as a botched dinner. One time, years ago, inadequately stretchy pizza dough sent me into a blind rage. Another time I fucked up fried chicken and wound up nearly crying.

I botched the broccoli falafel. I’m not exactly sure what I did wrong, but I think it was multiple things. I used my blender as a food processor, but the ingredients were too dry to blend together, so I added olive oil and screwed up the consistency. Instead of deep frying the falafel in a dutch oven on my stove, I tried to pan-fry them in a cast-iron skillet on my grill because I didn’t want my apartment stinking like grease for a week. The first several falafel I tried to make completely disintegrated and spread out into the oil. The oil never quite got hot enough, so the falafel took on more grease than I would’ve liked, and took way too long to fry. My kid kept screaming for my help with a puzzle while I was putting together the tzatziki, and I wound up using slightly too much dill and not enough chives. On and on like that.

It snowballed on me, and I found myself crushed by the monotony and difficulty and inconvenience and just the relentless grind of this whole quarantine thing, thinking about how much more complicated it is to screw up dinner now that the pizza place sometimes runs out of pizza, and how I was going to have to wake up the next day to help the boy with more puzzles and plan another dinner. By the time I constructed the sandwich, which I fully expected to suck, I didn’t want to eat it so much as I wanted to curl up and go catatonic on my kitchen floor.

What it looks like: 

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How it tastes: Pretty darn good, actually.

The consistency of the broccoli falafel wasn’t exactly what I hoped for, but the flavor of them was delicious, and they definitely maintained a nice outer crunch that, in conjunction with the juicy pickles and creamy tzatziki and soft onions, gave the sandwich some excellent textural diversity.

An underrated advantage of some sandwiches, I think, is the marriage of hot ingredients with cold ingredients, and the absurd amount of time it took me to successfully fry falafel meant the tzatziki, for waiting it out in the fridge, was quite cold. The contrast proved pleasant.

And the combination of flavors, honestly, was excellent. The combination of cumin, coriander and cilantro in the falafel made them spicy, warm and just a touch astringent. They maintained the flavor of the broccoli, but in a fairly subtle way, like no one was trying to beat you over the head with the fact that you’re eating broccoli for dinner.

The pickles gave the sandwich a sweet, vinegary bite, the onions added some smoky earthiness, the tzatziki provided an herbaceous tang, and the sriracha offered just enough kick to keep it all interesting. The hot dog roll, for its part, held the sandwich together and got out of the damn way.

Hall of Fame? No, but there’s a lot more potential here than I figured there would be after I fouled it all up. Things could always be worse, I guess.

Do the trivia!

I’ve got a doctor’s appointment (not the ‘rona) and some stuff to take care of today, so in lieu of text content, hey, why not check out the online debut of The Quad-A Baseball Quiz from last month?

I am doing another quiz tomorrow, May 14, at 8:30 p.m. ET, thanks again to the tech guidance of real-life baseball-trivia mainstay Cooper Lund. There’s no cost to play, you probably don’t have anything else to do, and you might have fun. You can register here today and tomorrow.

I’m sorry to say that tomorrow’s version will feature less of my face, but the upside to you is that this time around, the video should feature a significantly higher ratio of baseball trivia to me learning how to share my screen.

I found a band I never heard of that I think I actually like

This never happens anymore, on account of I’m extremely old. For a while I tried hard to find new music I enjoy just for the sake of not seeming so old, and to some extent, it worked. But Spotify is my primary means of music consumption these days, its auto-generated radio feature seems to just shuffle among like five bands, and I find myself listening to the same stuff over and over again. In the rare instance Spotify presents me a song I like that I’m unfamiliar with, it is far more likely to be an Otis Redding deep cut than some new cool band I might check out when venues re-open.

But YouTube did me a hell of a solid today. I’ve been toying with the idea of buying an electric mouthpiece pickup for my trumpet so I can run it through guitar effects and make up for the fact that I suck at it. So I went looking for people playing electrified horns, and I came upon these dudes:

This Car Alarm song… it’s kind of a jam! And I like that these guys, though obviously trained and talented musicians, clearly do not take themselves seriously.

So I did some digging and learned that Too Many Zooz blew up online when a clip of them busking in Union Square went viral in part because of the sax player’s sax gesticulations, which are enviable.

This made me think about subway-station buskers and how I miss them.

Not too long before the shutdown, I watched a beautiful scene unfold at the 86th St. stop on the Q Train. There was a delay for some reason, but this young guy who called himself Eyeglasses (and turns out to be a medical student and mega-achiever) was absolutely wailing on the electric cello. He had a loop station set up and was building incredible, multi-part covers of pop songs. Also waiting on the platform was a group of high-school kids on a field trip, and they apparently knew all the words to all the songs he covered, and they sang and shouted and danced along.

It’s an amazing thing when a subway performance turns magical like that, because even the most transit-hardened New Yorker lets his guard down for it. Only the high schoolers were dancing, but everyone on the crowded platform was watching or smiling or tapping their feet, and the dude’s cello case was overflowing with dollars.

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I can’t wait to ride the subway again someday.

Here are these dudes again:

Wallowing in it

man wearing face mask playing finger skateboard

We are all bored stock-photo quarantine man. (Photo by Polina Zimmerman on Pexels.com)

I’ve expressed this here before: All things considered, I’m doing pretty well right now. Everyone in my family is healthy, all my friends are healthy, my wife’s working absurd hours but her job has generally been good to her, and my unemployment has afforded my kid the luxury of going through this lousy time with a fully engaged parent. The virus has killed more than 80,000 people in the U.S. and forced 38 million out of work, many of them presumably without a doctor wife as a contingency plan.  Relatively speaking, I can’t complain.

But to hell with speaking relatively! This sucks, y’all. It’s so bad. I know I’m lucky to be able to be able to whine about boredom right now, and I don’t want to diminish the actual human suffering happening all around me. But even while I am able to see, objectively, how fortunate I am for my current circumstances, I still sometimes just want to wallow in how shitty they are.

My phone tracks all my movements and logs them on my Google Maps timeline. It’s invasive and terrifying, but also so often interesting and useful that I haven’t yet turned that function off.

During this shutdown, I keep thinking of things I always wanted to do but kept putting off, and kicking myself for not taking better advantage of the pre-COVID world. So today, to really beat myself up for it, I went back to look at my Google Maps timeline from the last week before New York City closed down.

On Thursday, March 5th, after my in-laws came to pick up the boy, I took the ferry to Wall St./Pier 11 and spent two hours writing in a coffee shop I like in the Financial District. I came back home in the afternoon, then went to the Upright Citizens’ Brigade theater, where I participated in a baseball-themed Adult Spelling Bee and lost to Mets gameday host Mike Janela in a tiebreaker round. Our son spent the night with his grandparents, so my wife and I went to a nearby Thai place for dinner after the event.

On Friday, March 6th, I drove to D.C., stopping at Chaps Pit Beef in Baltimore for lunch along the way. Driving instead of taking the Amtrak was an early concession I made to the coronavirus at my wife’s behest, but it allowed me to eat a delicious sandwich. I got to D.C. in the early afternoon, dropped my stuff off at a hotel, then gave myself a mini-monument tour on one of that city’s many shared electric scooters. Then I met up with my buddies from college and went out to dinner.

On Saturday, March 7th, I went out for waffles, got a drink at a pub near Capital One Arena, watched Georgetown lose a basketball game in frustrating fashion, then went out for wings, then to another bar, and back to the hotel. The next day I hung out for a while at friend’s house in D.C., then drove home in the afternoon.

On Monday, March 9th, I took my kid to his music class in Columbus Circle, then walked through Central Park back to my apartment. On Tuesday the 10th, we went to the zoo. In the evening, I took the subway downtown to the Woolworth Building for a continuing-studies creative-writing workshop I took through NYU, then stopped at a bodega and took the ferry home.

On Wednesday the 11th, I took the boy to a make-up music class, then back through Central Park via a playground, then to another playground after his nap. On Thursday the 12th, I again took the ferry to that same downtown coffee shop to write, then took a Citi Bike up to my doctor’s office on the west side, then back home.

On Friday the 13th, I went nowhere.

It turns out I used to do stuff. I totally did stuff! It wasn’t that I didn’t take advantage of the pre-COVID world, it was that I took it for granted. Well, virus, I’ve learned my lesson, so you can stop now.

 

Q&A: Favorite ballpark food

I had three holdover questions from last week I wanted to get to, then I spent 1200 words on the first of them. So I guess I’ve got content already mapped out for next week!

Devon with a locked Twitter account asked me to list the “five best things I’ve eaten at a ballpark.”

This is a surprisingly complicated question to tackle, as I’ve done quite a lot of special-event eating at ballparks. In San Diego for the All-Star Game, I sat at a table as one of Petco Park’s chefs brought me all the stadium’s best foods so I could eat them on Facebook Live. I’ve been to five or six of the Mets’ annual food previews, which are incredible, and I attended MLB’s inaugural FoodFest in New York. I even once got the Legends Suite experience at Yankee Stadium, which goes a long way toward explaining why no one’s ever in the seats behind home plate during Yankees games. They’re back in the dining room, eating ridiculously good food, and probably trading hedge funds or something.

I say this not to call out Citi Field or the Mets in particular, only because it’s the place where I’ve (understandably) most often witnessed this phenomenon: The food presented to media, at events specifically created to generate positive press around a ballpark’s food, is never quite as good when you try it in the wild. When I sampled the Fuku chicken sandwich at the Citi tasting event, I figured it would become my go-to meal there. The first time I got it while actually at a game, it was disappointing enough that I never got it again.

Also, for context, I always tried my best not to eat at ballparks while traveling for work. Maybe somewhere in Wrigley Field there’s some astonishingly tasty specialty sandwich (though I kind of doubt it), but in a city that eats as well as Chicago does, there’s no way I’m wasting a meal on ballpark food unless it’s an absolute necessity. I’ve got something of an iron stomach for greasy food, but when you’re spending the entire month of October on the road watching baseball games, you need to take care to eat a salad at some point or the World Series is going to be awfully unpleasant.

OK, here we go: 

5) Dante’s Inferno Pizza, Progressive Field: So you know that thing I just said about trying not to eat at ballparks while traveling for work? It’s more or less impossible to pull off in Cleveland if you don’t have access to a car. Downtown Cleveland, at least as of 2016, has one stretch of sports bars, a takeout pizza place, and, I want to say, a Blimpie. The best places I found to eat in that area were actually inside a casino, but entering a casino to eat pre-game lunch is a risky proposition when you’re a degenerate like myself. 

It’s all good, because Progressive Field is quietly an excellent food park. I’m not even sure the pizza is the best thing I’ve had there, but I remember that it’s cooked to order and that the Dante’s Inferno namesake pizza was spicy and delicious. I also remember a sandwich with pierogi on top, and thinking that the pierogi didn’t actually add anything to the sandwich but appreciating that I could pull them off and eat them as dessert.

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A Torchy’s Taco

4) Torchy’s Tacos, Minute Maid Park: You’re going to notice a theme here. The ballpark foods I like the best are rarely those made specifically for ballparks, because foods made specifically for ballparks these days seem more focused on generating internet buzz and Instagram likes than actually tasting good. A bacon-wrapped chicken-and-waffle fried pizza lobster donut may sound intriguing, but I guarantee it’s not as good as tacos from a good taco place. Torchy’s is an excellent, Austin-based fast-casual taco chain, worth eating at even if you’re not in a ballpark. But the Minute Maid Park location is incredibly convenient to the auxiliary press box.

3) Mama’s Special, Citi Field: I already know Devon’s with me on this one. After years of dallying in Blue Smoke and Box Frites and Two Boots and all Citi’s other good options, I concluded that the best, most consistent, and most convenient meal to eat there is the one carryover from Shea Stadium. An Italian hero is a perfect ballpark food for a ballpark in Queens — it’s a full meal, it’s regionally appropriate, it’s easy to eat with your hands without making a mess, and it’s salty and porky and cheesy and fantastic. The turkey and mozzarella sandwich from Mama’s is also a go-to for me. Why am I going to kill three innings waiting on like at Shake Shack when I can get a really good deli hero in 10 minutes? Makes no sense.

One of the big keys to eating at Mama’s in Citi Field, I think, is making sure to also get a packet of Italian dressing. They have them on hand for salads, but they don’t default to giving you one unless you ask. Really makes the sandwich sing.

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It’s for the belly, not the ‘gram

2) Chili Half-Smoke, Nats Park: Trust that it kills me to put anything related to the Nats this high on the list, but this ranking isn’t about the Nats so much as it’s about Ben’s Chili Bowl. If you’re unfamiliar, the original Ben’s location is a D.C. institution and one of my favorite places to eat in the whole world. It’s a place that brings tourists and locals together to bond around the deliciousness of half-smoke sausages (a D.C. delicacy) drowned in soupy chili, I almost never go to D.C. without getting there, and I envy the heck out of Nats fans for their access to its ballpark location. A Chili Half-Smoke is a mess of a thing to attempt to eat at a baseball game, but whatever. Love Ben’s Chili Bowl. Save Ben’s Chili Bowl!

1) Corn on the Cob, Chiefs Stadium: Maybe this is a cop-out. In 2005 I worked in a high school, meaning I had the whole summer off. I drove from New York to Minneapolis (via Canada and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan), met some friends there, and set out on a ridiculous baseball road trip. In the course of maybe 15 days, we hit games in Minnesota, Milwaukee, Chicago, Detroit, Chicago again, Peoria, St. Louis, Kansas City, D.C. and Baltimore.

If I remember it right, the Peoria Chiefs game almost happened on a whim, like, “hey you know what would be a funny thing to do on our one night without baseball during this absurd baseball road trip? Go to a different baseball game!” And at that point, I had been on the road a while (I took three days just getting to Minneapolis), and almost exclusively eating fast food and ballpark food. Oh, and it was in the midst of a brutal heat wave.

Out in the right-field pavilion in Peoria in 2005, they were grilling up corn on the cob. I assume it was local, because why the heck wouldn’t you have local corn in Peoria, and after exclusively eating greasy, processed food for the prior couple weeks, it ranked among the single most delicious things I’d ever eaten. It didn’t even need butter! And I know corn’s not even particularly healthy, but it’s definitely better than, like, your fourth straight meal at Jack In The Box because there’s  Jack In The Box in your hotel parking lot.

So it was that. The corn. Pretend it was wrapped in bacon, I guess.