Sandwich of the Week!

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Going to keep this quick today because I got roughly 90 minutes’ worth of sleep last night. This happens to me sometimes, but I’m not entirely sure why it happened this time. I have a couple of theories.

The first is that quarantine has devolved into something close to a vegetative state, so I don’t really need proper sleep because I’m more or less always at rest now. The second and more likely explanation is that I was simply too fired up about this sandwich. Look at that thing.

The sandwich: Lamburger!

The construction: A grilled, ground lamb patty with homemade tzatziki, sliced cucumbers, butterhead lettuce, grilled red onion, and sriracha on a pretzel roll.

The lamb, like a lot of my meat, came from Crowd Cow, where you and I can both get $25 worth of meat if you use my referral code and keep making me a meat influencer. I prepped it by vaguely following this recipe, up until the point where he says to shape the lamb patties like footballs so they fit inside a pita.

I also used AmazingRibs.com’s tzatziki recipe, except I didn’t have sour cream so I added a splash of vinegar to the yogurt. Also — and you may have figured this out by now — I don’t often follow recipes closely and almost never measure anything. Who’s got the type of time for that? It’s nice to have a general sense of proportion, but I always adjust based on what I like and what I have. In this case, I didn’t have that much mint but I had a ton of chives and dill, so I used a ton of chives and dill. (Chives, it turns out, just sort of keep on coming forever if you plant them once. Even in the dead of winter, there are usually chives growing in the pot I use as an herb garden. Useful herb, too.)

I found that site’s recipes because it’s almost always the first place I look for grilling tips when I pick up a meat I haven’t cooked before. The world of online barbecue discourse is fraught with ridiculous pseudoscience, and Meathead Goldwyn is a beacon of reason.

Important background information: I don’t especially love lamb. It’s fine, and it’s decidedly better than not having meat, but it’s rare that I eat lamb and don’t consider how the meal it came in wouldn’t be improved by using plain, old, incredible beef. Basically, as a rule of thumb: Unless your lamb dish comes from Xi’an Famous Foods, I’d rather it be beef. Or squab. You ever get down on some squab? Incredible meat.

I also don’t like onions in most contexts. I’m fine with the flavor of onions and I use them to cook somewhat frequently — it’s unavoidable, really — but something about the texture grosses me out, so usually I try to dice them up into the tiniest pieces possible. But I figured, if nothing else, this shutdown period should be a time to expand our sandwich horizons, and I had some red onion in the fridge, and another thing to throw on the grill gives me more time to play with fire.

What it looks like: 00100lrportrait_00100_burst20200419183556770_cover

How it tastes: Like a f@#!ing symphony.

Where I went in with doubts about my use of lamb, one bite quieted them: Lamb and tzatziki are a perfect pair. The tart, lively, light, herbaceous flavor of the sauce is the ideal complement to the rich, gamy, garlicky lamb burger, and I suspect those two ingredients alone on a bun might’ve still made this a Hall of Famer. Though the ground lamb did not prove quite as juicy as a beef burger, my heavy hand with the tzatziki ensured the sandwich was thoroughly moist.

Cucumbers are a wildly underrated sandwich topping in general, and here they add crunch, moisture and flavor. The lettuce? Whatever. It’s lettuce. I could take it or leave it, to be honest. It made the sandwich a little more colorful.

Someone on Twitter called me out for mixing tzatziki and sriracha — as though that’s some sort of faux pas — but the light squirt of sriracha that I used added just some subtle heat to the whole thing, amplifying all the flavors without making any bite taste like sriracha itself.

And the red onion, I want to say, was a great call by yours truly. Grilling it brought out some of its sweetness, and there was enough textural diversity to the sandwich that I didn’t even notice the slitheriness that usually turns me off of onions. I was proud of myself for including it. I remain proud of myself.

All the parts are good, and yet the sandwich is better than the sum of its parts. If I had one quibble, it’d be that I screwed up on the bun a little by foolishly forgetting to take it out of the freezer to thaw before I started cooking. Instead, I threw it on the grill for a minute, but the inside part was still frozen when the lamb patties were ready, so I hastily cut it open to make sure the interior bun got warm, and in so doing I hacked the pretzel rolls to shreds. So it goes. Didn’t really take away from the sandwich, which ruled.

Hall of Fame? Yeah. Heck yeah. Go Ted.

Friday Q&A: Robots, foodstuff, quaran-time

Less talk, more rock. Via email, Steven writes:

Now that the Rakuten Monkeys of the Taiwanese Baseball League have bought hundreds of robots to dress as fans when they begin the 2020 season, will this be the setting of the first robot rebellion, with them storming the field and killing the players?

OK, so I’ve seen a bunch of clips of Rakuten games, and for the most part it seems like the robots in the stands are more mannequins than anything else. I don’t understand how the droids improve the baseball experience for anyone playing or watching unless it so happens they’re into extraordinarily creepy things — and more power to ’em — but these robots also don’t seem at all like the type of robots we need to worry about moving on humanity.

Although:

In any case, I feel that a baseball game is actually the safest place to allow robots to congregate. They will be lured in by its angles and its numbers and its logic, then tortured by its general senselessness, and either their circuit-boards will fry the first time they see the Taiwanese Joe McEwing go deep off the Taiwanese Randy Johnson, or they’ll be so entertained that their batteries run out before they get around to enacting the Singularity. All the smartest people I know chose to watch a lot of baseball instead of trying to take over the world.

On that topic:

I think, if it happens, it’ll be awfully weird. I’ve only seen highlights from the CPBL games, but I suspect they’re very weird. I remember watching when the Orioles played in front of an empty stadium during the Freddie Gray protests and thinking that it seemed extremely weird.

This is why I’ve suggested surrounding the playing fields with green-screens and staging the games against bizarre and hilarious backdrops, like, top of my head, outer space, underwater, an Old West desert scene, or the Himalayas. Heck, it wouldn’t even have to be so literal. Look, the Dodgers are playing the Padres inside Monet’s Water Lilies. Stare at the magic-eye backdrop of this Marlins game long enough and a real baseball team pops out. If it’s going to be weird, you might as well go full weird.

All that said, I’d happily tune into games in empty stadiums every night if and when that proves a safe way to bring baseball to 2020. The presence of baseball means I don’t have to figure out what to watch on TV, and right now I’m struggling with that. I know there’s plenty of great stuff I could be binge-watching, but it’s like I’ve gotten so bored that I no longer know how to handle boredom. Usually boredom is the exception, now it’s the baseline.

Pretzels. But you’re asking the wrong guy. I think I have about a lifetime .200 batting average at getting yeast to work.

I did play football! I loved it. I coached football, too, and loved that too. And I loved watching football for a very long time, until a couple of things happened:

1) I started spending the entirety of my Octobers on the road covering baseball, meaning that I’d come home after having spent some 30-40 consecutive days working and watching sports, the Jets would already be out of contention, and I just didn’t find myself in the mood to figure out what was happening in the NFL and start watching more sports.

And, mainly, 2) We learned that professional football somewhat regularly scrambles players’ brains, and that the NFL either actively covered up that information or at the very least put on some incredibly large blinders to avoid acknowledging it.

I try not to be too holier-than-thou about not watching football anymore because I understand that it’s exciting and because I recognize that millions and millions of people still very much enjoy it in spite of having seen and read all the same things I’ve seen and read about CTE. But I’ll say that having Sundays free turns out to be pretty amazing, and it turns out I can find other excuses to eat Buffalo wings.

Also, I find the NFL Draft especially frustrating for a variety of reasons, and don’t think it’s compelling television. Down with sports drafts!

I am vaguely interested in seeing what the inside of Mel Kiper Jr.’s house looks like, which presumably viewers of this year’s NFL Draft will get to do. But I’m forgoing that opportunity because the same night of this year’s NFL Draft — Thursday, April 23, or a week from yesterday — I’m hosting the online version of the bar baseball trivia I was doing monthly until all bars closed.

It was probably not the best idea to schedule it against the only sporting event in months, but the NFL Draft is not actually a sporting event.

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If you’re reading this, you should play. Sign up here.

At times when I am not quarantined, I am actually terrible at this. I generally have pasta, butter and parmesan cheese on hand, and that’s kind of a meal, but it’s not a very good one. We almost always have yogurt and granola, and that’s a solid breakfast. Living across the street from a supermarket allows me to be pretty irresponsible about keeping food stocked.

So instead of an actual answer, I’ll share my go-to quick meal when I need to make a fairly fast, delicious, inexpensive dinner (and then some — it always feeds my family at least twice). You will need:

  • One box of pasta, preferably something like rigatoni or fusilli
  • One pound spicy Italian sausage with the casings removed
  • A large head of broccoli
  • Four cloves of garlic, sliced thin
  • Olive oil
  • Parmesan cheese
  • Salt
  • Pepper

Steps:

  1. In one pot, boil some salted water for pasta. When it’s boiling, add pasta.
  2. Set another, larger pot over medium heat. Add enough olive oil to cover the bottom, garlic and sausage meat, stirring occasionally to brown all the meat.
  3. After the pasta’s been cooking for a few minutes, throw in the broccoli. You can use a separate pot for the broccoli if you want, but then you have an extra dirty dish to deal with. Screw that. Just use the pasta pot.
  4. When the pasta and broccoli are cooked, drain them, then dump them into the pot with the sausage and lower the heat.
  5. Stir so the olive oil and delicious orange sausage grease coat the pasta. If the pasta looks dry, add a little more olive oil.
  6. Mix in about 2 ounces of Parmesan cheese. Two ounces is an estimate based on looking up the standard size container of Parmesan cheese, which turns out to be 5 ounces. I use a little less than half of that.
  7. Give it a healthy hit of black pepper.

Sprinkle some extra parmesan cheese on top to serve. It’s very good, and you can feed six people for like nine bucks.

Via Twitter, Kevin (who has a private account) asks:

What is the ideal age and living situation for this whole shitshow shut down?

I got at this a little bit a couple weeks ago, but I think it’s something that a lot of people are thinking about it. And I think a lot of people are thinking about it because everyone’s certain their own shutdown situation is something far less than ideal.

And I suspect, to a lot of people, my own situation for the shutdown might seem somewhat optimal: I don’t have a job so I don’t have to worry about working from home, and I was already out of the job long before this started, so I’m not stressing about the loss of income. My wife’s job is pandemic-proof, my apartment has a backyard, I’ve only got one kid and he’s too young for proper school so I don’t have to worry about home-schooling him in calculus or whatever. But still I keep finding myself like, “ugh this sucks, this would be so much easier if…”

Obviously the ideal circumstance for any situation is “eccentric billionaire,” but assuming that’s not an option, my first instinct was to say: Middle school. Remember how much middle school sucked? God, it’d be great to get out of middle school. But wait! You’re not just getting out of middle school to play sports with your friends and flirt with classmates you run into at the movie theater. You’re getting out of middle school to do nothing at all besides stare at various screens, and that sounds largely unsatisfying.

High-schoolers tend to think anything bad that happens to them is the worst thing that has ever happened to anyone, so high school is out. College kids have had their minds warped by people telling them “these are the best four years of your life,” which isn’t at all true but puts them under all sorts of pressure to make the most of those four years, so that’s out too.

I’d say, of all the living situations I’ve ever seen up close, the best for riding out a quarantine would be one that belonged to a friend of mine in Brooklyn when we were in our mid-20s. He lived in a huge apartment with four other dudes and all of them were musically or creatively inclined, so I imagine they could’ve rode out a hypothetical quarantine just jamming and making music and broing down, and there were enough other people around that you wouldn’t get sick of each other. But then, in retrospect, I can’t remember what any of those guys did for work, or whether they’d still be able to cover the rent in circumstances like this one.

I think this pretty much sucks for everyone except profiteering politicians. It obviously sucks way, way more for some people than for others, but I don’t know that anyone reasonable is satisfied with the terms under which they have to stay inside all the time.

Sandwich of the Week

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My wife pointed out recently that this crisis doesn’t seem to change personalities so much as it amplifies them. I think that’s right: People who are usually assholes are now acting like outrageous assholes. People who are typically friendly are being extremely friendly. Trouble is, it’s hard to tell one group from the other when everyone’s wearing masks.

When I am out and about in New York City in normal times, I am neither mean nor nice so much as I am dedicated to not inconveniencing people. Call it my own implementation of the Golden Rule: I do not wish for people to treat me with outgoing kindness so much as I wish for them to not block my egress from the subway.

So right now, I find myself trying very hard not to get in anybody’s way, which is difficult to pull off while shepherding around a 2-year-old who can’t grasp the concept of social distancing or the measure of six feet. Lots of people seem rightly paranoid about letting him or me get too close, but some are pretty cool about it and some are way less cool about it, and, again, it’s impossible to guess how people are going to react when their faces are covered.

This morning, I was walking along a narrow path in Central Park when the boy started to melt down a little. A moody kid, in my experience, is far less apt to take instructions, less willing to be gently tugged away from strangers by the hood of his coat, and generally more demanding. And it so happened that a masked man with a dog was coming our way right as I could tell things were about to get hairy.

Wanting to give the guy and dog as wide a berth as possible, I pulled my son toward me. As I did, he spotted my phone peeking out of the cupholder on his stroller, pointed at it, and demanded I play a song on it. This is something he does sometimes, and most of the time I can figure out what song he means, either because he knows the title — “Down by the Bay,” “Wheels on the Bus” and “Everyday People” he has down — or because I know his name for the song — “The Train Coming Song” is “Folsom Prison Blues;” “Are You My Sunshine?” is “You Are My Sunshine;” “The Talking Heads” refers, oddly enough, to Al Green’s version of “Take Me to the River.”

This morning, he said, with increasing urgency, “Want Dada to play ‘More We Get Together.’ Want Dada to play ‘More We Get Together!'”

Not realizing that “The More We Get Together” is, in fact, the name of a song, I tried to get him to clarify what he meant.

“I don’t know ‘More We Get Together,'” I said. “How does it go?”

Then, from beneath his mask, the dude with the dog — in a singing voice so lovely and so polished that I assume he is either a Broadway guy or at least someone who came to New York to be a Broadway guy — busted out: “The more we get together, together, together; the more we get together, the happier we’ll be!”

I realize this anecdote is so delightful as to seem unbelievable, especially given the extremely on-the-nose choice of song, but it really happened, on a path just west of the Alice in Wonderland statue, roughly four hours ago. Made the kid’s morning, too. People aren’t so bad sometimes.

Anyway, here’s a sandwich.

The sandwich: Roast beef with avocado-ricotta spread, fried garlic, and “pico de lettuce” on lightly toasted sourdough.

The construction: All those things I just said. Should I start coming up with names for my homemade sandwiches? Probably.

Like last time I did a roast beef sandwich, I roasted the beef myself using a rump roast I got from Crowd Cow. Like last time, I will now shill for my own Crowd Cow referral code, with which you and I can both get $25 off our next meat purchases. A bunch of people have already done this, and I am extremely appreciative — both because it has provided me with a ton of free meat and because it allows me to consider myself a meat influencer. It’s not just beef, either. Thanks to the people who bought meat with my referral code, forthcoming Sandwiches of the Week will likely feature chicken breast and ground lamb.

This time, I followed this pit beef recipe a little more closely. And this time, I still had cornbread left over from Easter on the day I roasted the beef, so I served it as straight-up roast beef the first day and made sandwiches the next.

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This worked out well for me, as it meant that the roast beef was cold when I sliced it up for sandwiches the next day. Cold roast beef is way easier to slice thin.

I made the avocado-ricotta spread by combining a slightly overripe avocado with some ricotta I needed to use before it went bad. I included a pinch of salt, too, out of habit. It turns out this is a pretty incredible sandwich spread — it’s a little wetter, creamier and tangier than if you just used straight up smashed avocado, but more colorful and flavorful and less goopy than ricotta alone.

Fried garlic is what it sounds like. I made mine by slicing up garlic as thin as possible and pan-frying it in oil. I think I had the oil at slightly too high a temperature, as I scorched the garlic a little bit.

TedQuarters completists with incredible memories might remember “pico de lettuce” from this 2012 Hall of Famer from No. 7 Sub. That was before I met No. 7 Sub sandwich guru Tyler Kord, talked sandwich theory with him, and convinced him to make me a sandwich — all of which you could still watch if websites everywhere weren’t so dedicated to using fly-by-night in-house video players instead of just sucking it up, giving YouTube some of their ad money, and having people actually watch the videos they spend so much time and energy making.

Important background information: I don’t know much about the ethics of recipe-heisting. I know that excerpting from books is generally OK, but would it count as excerpting if I just lifted the entire recipe for “pico de lettuce” from the No. 7 Sub cookbook and shared it with you, free of charge? Feels like a lousy thing to do to a guy who once gave me a sandwich.

Also, the guy Tyler Kord is an actual, culinary-school trained chef who knows what he’s doing and I’m some bored shmo in his apartment trying to figure it out. I modified the recipe for pico de lettuce — his used romaine, but I used butterhead lettuce because it’s what I had, and I added some shredded Brussels sprouts to try to give it a little more crunch. I can’t tell in good conscience tell you what I made without crediting his recipe, but I’m at least mildly concerned that if I relay to you what I made, some Grand High Master of Chef Society will see it and be all, “Kord told this guy it was OK to mix Brussels sprouts and butterhead lettuce? That’s a clear violation of Statute 79.2b! Oust him from the club and shame him in public.”

I feel comfortable saying that, in the book, Kord explains that he made up the term “pico de lettuce” because it sounds better than “old salad,” and that — as I suspected in the 2012 writeup — it is, in fact, “some sort of dressed lettuce.” I will also say that, in times like these when you are presumably trying to come up with interesting new ways to combine the mundane foods in your pantry, A Super Upsetting Cookbook About Sandwiches will be your gospel. Buy the guy’s book so I don’t feel bad trading on his ideas. Save the beef and the bread, every element of this sandwich is at least influenced by something I saw in there.

What it looks like: 

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How it tastes: Great!

First, regarding the part of this sandwich I had nothing to do with: The sourdough (from a brand called Heidelberg, via my freezer) is a huge upgrade over the wheat bread I’ve used for previous quarantine sandwiches. It’s a bit more dense, which is a good thing for holding together under duress, and it’s got a pleasant chewiness to it, more flavor, and it’s not as dry.

The roast beef was remarkably tender, and the smoke flavor I got from following the above-linked recipe just barely poked its way through all the other tastes here.

The interplay between the fried garlic and the avocado-ricotta spread, if I may say, is fabulous. The crunchy, pungent garlic adds both texture and flavor, and perfectly complements the creamy, mild spread upon which it rests. Because I overdid the garlic a bit, I think, there’s a hint of an unpleasant aftertaste, but not nearly enough to derail the sandwich.

And the pico de lettuce, as it did on that 2012 sub, just really shines as a sandwich topping. It’s got some acidic bite without overpowering the sandwich, it’s got some crispiness, and it’s moist without turning the bread into a soggy mess. I happen to think the shredded Brussels sprouts were a nice add, as they gave it a bit more crunch.

It’s a delicious sandwich, but if I were making it again, I might search for a way to add a tiny bit more oomph. I don’t know if that means something of contrasting temperature — a hot item to go with all these cold things — or something a little spicy or something a little sweet. Just something. And not too much of it. There’s already a lot going on here.

Hall of Fame? Not quite, though I can’t exactly explain why. I think this sandwich has all the elements of a Hall of Fame sandwich, and it would have gotten there if I perfectly executed all of them. But I stacked the roast beef a little thick in the middle and a little thin on the edges, I burned the garlic a bit, and I probably should’ve put the avocado-ricotta spread on both sides.

Also, you really can’t put too many of your own sandwiches into your own Sandwich Hall of Fame without trivializing the entire institution. I’m going to have you believe that I’m so talented a cook and conceiver of sandwiches that I can just churn out all-timers on the reg? C’mon.

Oil change

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This is fiction. It was inspired by this tweet, and written in mild protest of this New York Times piece. It includes a medical supposition that has not yet been established by science; please do not use TedQuarters fiction in lieu of an actual doctor’s advice. 

“Hey, Sammy,” he barked through the cloudy plexiglass window separating the shop from the garage. “How long for an oil change?”

“Ehh… 40 minutes,” called a voice from the other side. “Gotta take the Lexus off the lift and then I’ll take care of it.”

“40 minutes OK?” he asked, turning back to the woman in the doorway. “You can wait here or come back and get it later. Plenty of room on the lot right now.”

Instinctively, she looked outside to confirm. At the gas pump, a woman in medical scrubs and a surgical mask wore latex gloves to refill a clean grey Audi SUV. The parking area had room for seven or eight cars, but held only two besides hers — a small black sedan and a copper-colored, canvas-topped old American gas guzzler in good shape.

“40 minutes is fine,” she said.

“Keys?” he asked, holding out his hand.

She stepped tentatively toward the counter, looking at the open canister of disinfectant wipes serving as a paper-weight on a rumpled stack of pink receipts. “Should I just… put them…”

“However you like,” he shrugged, lifting a corner of his mouth into a friendly grin as he opened a drawer beneath the counter and pulled out a job ticket. He wore his salt-and-pepper hair in a ponytail that spilled out the back of a faded Yankees cap. A silver handlebar mustache, neatly kept, framed his strong, dimpled chin. The mid-May sunshine pouring into the shop darkened the transition lenses on his aviator glasses enough that it was difficult — but still possible — to see gentle eyes moving about behind them.

She set her keys down on the counter, pinching her face as though she smelled something unpleasant. She wore pilled maroon sweatpants with white bleach spots near the ankles and a faded blue T-shirt featuring a clip-art drawing of sporting goods under the words “Justin’s Bar Mitzvah.” She had shoulder-length hair that she styled with a messy side part, and just below her ear level it abruptly changed colors from a drab brown to a rich auburn. She was petite with delicate features, and pale, but with the leathered skin of someone who had once spent plenty of time in the sun.

He offered a quick, understanding nod and grabbed her keys. She waited, motionless, while he disappeared into the garage through a door behind the counter, then returned with a ballpoint pen.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“Janice,” she said.

“Last name?”

“Oh,” she blushed. “Duffy.”

He scribbled her name on the form and looked out toward her car.

“Red Jetta,” he said to himself as he wrote. “What model year?”

“2013,” she said.

“Just oil, filter, lube?” he asked.

“I guess,” she said. “Just, you know, the standard.”

“Any preference what oil?”

“Whatever you recommend.”

“Regular’s 15 bucks,” he said, “Synthetic is ten dollars more, but it lasts twice as long.”

“I’ll do that, I guess,” she said. “The synthetic.”

“Alright, Janice Duffy,” he said. “With synthetic oil, new filters and a lube, that’s gonna come to 74 dollars. Do you work at the hospital?”

“No,” she said. “Why?”

“I do a twenty percent discount for essential workers. Doctors, nurses, cops–”

“I’m a party planner. Or, I was.”

“74 dollars, then,” he said. “And did you want to wait here, or you want me to call you when it’s done?”

She looked around the shop. There were a few dusty shelves half-full of auto accessories — tire gauges, bottles of wiper fluid, and an array of tree-shaped air fresheners — plus a soda machine and a snack vending machine that was entirely empty except for chewing gum. In one corner, three metal folding chairs sat around a small plastic table with nothing on it besides a large pump bottle of hand sanitizer.

“I’ll wait,” she said. Muttering, she added, “Nothing else to do.”

He grinned again, and nodded toward the chairs.

“Be my guest,” he said. “I got rid of the magazines, but I’ve got the Daily News if you want it.”

“I definitely don’t,” she said with a snicker. “I might go for a walk, actually.”

“Good day for it. You know the area?”

“Yeah, I live in town.”

“Oh. You been here before?”

“Just for gas,” she said. “I always took it to the place on Morris Ave. near the baseball field, but they closed.”

“I know the place,” he said. “Sad about Terry.”

“The owner?”

“Yeah.”

“Must be hard for anyone to stay in business right now.”

“It wasn’t that,” he said, pursing his lips. “But hey, look, not to– you can take my card if you want. I do inspections, too, and any kind of engine and transmission work you need.”

He pulled a business card out of a holder on the counter and held it out to her. Over his shoulder, through the plexiglass, she noticed her car pulling into the garage. She looked quizzically at his hand, then tentatively extended her own.

“You don’t mind if I just– “ she said, her fingers inching toward the card.

“Had it already, pretty early,” he said. “Been cleared almost a month now.”

She exhaled, and tension escaped her shoulders.

“Me too,” she said, taking the card. “I mean, I never officially got tested, but I definitely had it.”

“Knocked me on my ass,” he said. “But I guess it could’ve been worse.”

“Really? I barely had anything. Just a cough. Fever for a few days. And for like two weeks, everything I ate tasted like cardboard.”

“Same thing. Wet cardboard. So weird.”

She shook her head grimly and lifted her phone to check the time.

“OK, well,” she said. “40 minutes?”

He looked back through the plexiglass.

“It’s already up on the lift, so probably more like 20 now,” he said. “Sammy works quick. Not much for paperwork, though.”

He nodded toward the stack of receipts on the counter as she fumbled through her purse, his business card still pressed between her fingers.

“Shit,” she said, looking around the shop again. “You don’t sell cigarettes, do you?”

“I don’t. Closest place still open is a deli about, what, a mile and a half up the road on Peninsula Boulevard, just past the Southern State.”

She scrunched her face in frustration. “I just left them in the car.”

He ran his hand over the chest pocket of his shirt, then reached into his jeans and pulled out a rumpled box of Parliaments.

“If you just need one, I’ve got you,” he said.

“Oh, I don’t want to–” she hesitated. “I mean, I’ll give you a buck if you want.”

“Oh please. Just take it. I’ve been there.”

He flipped open the top of the pack and held it out to her. She paused, then reached two fingers in and pulled out a cigarette.

“Thanks so much,” she said, taking a deliberate glance at the business card in her other hand. “Ben.”

“Need a light?”

“I do, actually. Sorry.”

“The cigarette is on the house,” he chuckled, “but a light costs five bucks.”

Through his darkened lenses, they made eye contact, and she smiled.

“I’ll come out with you,” he said. “I could use one myself, tell you the truth.”

She led the way out the door and held it open while he lifted a hinged corner of the counter and followed her out. It was an unseasonably warm day, but without the heavy humidity of summer. In a neglected planter by the shop entrance, a patch of freshly flowered yellow dandelions and fledgling green crabgrass shaded a smattering of cigarette butts that had been snuffed into the dirt below.

Wordlessly, he handed her a plastic lighter. She flicked it on and pulled its flame to the end of her cigarette with a long drag, then handed it back. He lit up with a quick puff and let his cigarette hang out the side of his mouth as he shoved the lighter back into his pocket. There was ample space for them to spread out, but they stood next to each other near the doorway. Something metal clanked in the garage, breaking the silence.

“This is weird, right?” she asked, staring ahead toward the now-unoccupied gas pump and the empty expanse of blacktop around it. He nodded. She turned her head toward him. “Do you know how you got it?”

“Nah,” he said. “Hospital’s right up the road here. Lots of people coming and going. Could’ve been anyone. You?”

“A concert, I think” she said, rolling her eyes. “A work thing. Last night before they shut the venue down, believe it or not.”

“Concert, huh? Anyone I know?”

“Not if you’re lucky,” she said. “The Dirt Dogs.”

He let out a staccato snort of laughter.

“Oh, everyone my age ‘round here knows the Dirt Dogs. Matter of fact, I saw them open up for Led Zeppelin at the Coliseum when I was a teenager.”

“You were there?” she pepped up, smiling wide.

“There’s no way you were,” he said, looking her over.

“No, no,” she said. “I was seven years old. It’s just, we book them — you know, for events — and that’s like the main selling point. ‘Opened for Led Zeppelin in 1979.’ You’d be shocked how well that plays.”

“The Dirt Dogs,” he said, shaking his head. “That’s a trip. I had no idea they were still going.”

“Well, it’s just Mickey now — the singer. His kid plays guitar. The other two are just session guys.”

“The Dirt Dogs,” he said again. “Man, what a trip. You know, I haven’t seen live music in I don’t know how many years. It’s one of those things where, when you always have the option–”

“I know,” she said. “That’s ice skating for me.”

“Ice skating?”

“Once upon a time I’d go to open-skate at the rink out in Bellmore a couple days a week, but you know how it goes. Now that I can’t, I can’t stop thinking about it.”

“Let me ask you,” he said, more animated than before. “Did you keep smoking the whole time you had the virus?”

She stared at him for a moment. “I cut back a lot, but yeah, I did. You?”

“Me? Oh, no. I was off ‘em for 17 years when I got it.”

“What?”

“I quit 17 years ago. Tell you what– she divorced me anyway.”

She burst into laughter.

“What?” he asked.

“I’m sorry,” she said, coughing and rasping as she giggled. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be laughing, it’s just, you’re telling me you quit smoking for 17 years, you survived a lung disease that’s killing people left and right, and then, what, you got up, went out and bought a pack of Parliaments?”

“Hey,” he smiled, nodding at her cigarette as she stamped out the butt end in the planter. “It worked out for you.”

“And I appreciate it! But c’mon! No offense, but that’s got to be the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”

“I’ve made worse decisions,” he shrugged. “It’s something to do, anyway.”

“Oh, I know it,” she said, leaning in and gently smacking his shoulder in commiseration. “Why do you think I got an oil change? I can’t spend another fucking moment alone in my apartment, and I’m running out of errands.”

“Hey, speaking of your oil change,” he said, putting his cigarette out in the planter. “I can ring you up inside if you want.”

“You know, I never thought I’d be excited to hand someone my credit card.”

“Strange times.”

He held the door open for her, and her body brushed against his as she stepped back into the shop.

“Well, it was really nice standing next to you, Ben,” she said as she pulled her wallet from her purse. “Maybe I’ll see you at a Dirt Dogs concert, whenever this is over.”

“I don’t know about that. Never cared for their music, to be honest. No offense.”

“I don’t think anyone does,” she said, laughing again. “I’m not offended.”

“Well, hey, you know where to find me. He should have it out any minute now. Keys will be in there. Need another smoke for the road?”

“I’m good. But I appreciate it.”

She casually took her card and receipt and moved toward the door.

“No problem,” he said. His eyes followed her out. “Hey, have a nice day.”

She stopped and turned back to face him. “Honestly,” she said, “I already did. Thanks for the laugh.”

“It’s nothing,” he said. “Take care now.”

Stranger than fiction

abstract black and white blur book

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

When I picked this site back up again last month, I mentioned that I spent a lot of time between October and late February writing fiction. I’ve always read fiction more often than anything else, and from the time I started writing online in 2007, I always figured I would ultimately write novels. But as it turns out, no one just hires you on spec to write novels — not ever, really, and certainly not on the strength of your baseball and sandwich blogging — and spending 40-55 hours a week staring at text on a computer screen did not make me eager to do more of it in my spare time.

I reject, to some extent, the notion of genre — a Colson Whitehead speech I recently read and loved noted, “there’s only two kinds of books, shit you like and shit you don’t like” — but the book I was working on in the fall would be categorized as sci-fi or speculative fiction. It was to take place in New York City in 2029 and open with an attack the protagonist (falsely) assumed to be a nuclear bomb. It sucked.

I scrapped it before the coronavirus hit New York City. The instance of this pandemic only validated that decision, because the 2029 in which the events of the book were taking place was one in which those now ongoing never did, and the difference would’ve been impossible to rectify. I didn’t set out to write with any themes in mind, but the themes I believe were emerging in the story included: The extent to which we take our comfort and security for granted, and the notion that social media and online interaction are inadequate substitutes for actual human contact.

Ha! Those themes, obviously, no longer require a book-length examination or even a sentence-length one. Right now, people all over the world are acutely aware of all the comforts we were taking for granted, and no one thinks FaceTime is as good as face-time.

Part of the appeal of speculative fiction, to me, is the way in which it reflects the hopes and fears of the real world in which it was written. Nineteen Eighty-Four is not a novel about 1984 so much as it is a novel about 1949. Slaughterhouse Five is nominally about World War II and time-travel and aliens, but at its core it’s a book about trauma and wartime horrors, and I cannot imagine it would have resonated in the same way if it were not released at the exact time U.S. involvement in Vietnam hit its peak.

That’s all a very long introduction to a couple of points: 1) I still intend to write some dope science fiction, but I’m finding it impossible to even try right now because we are in the midst of a real-life scenario straight out of science fiction, and I cannot wrap my head around the way things are going to be and the way we’re going to be when this is over.

2) Tomorrow, I’m going to post a short story here. It still technically registers as “speculative fiction” because it takes place a month from now, but it is a very different type of story than anything I ever imagined I’d write. I’ll very much appreciate if you read it. If you enjoy it, I’ll very much appreciate if you tell me so. If you don’t, though, go easy. I feel weird and uncomfortable putting out a piece of fiction in which nothing blows up.

 

Bang on a can

black plastic trash bin beside metal railing

A garbage can (Photo by ready made on Pexels.com)

A week ago, I referenced that I wanted to write something about the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal but changed my mind. I thought at the time that it seemed pointless to tackle something that is, at this point, so very un-topical (atopical?). But the site’s called TedQuarters, so whatever’s on my mind counts as topical here. If you’re sick of reading about the Houston Astros’ sign-stealing scandal, I don’t blame you, and please come back tomorrow.

I saw this tweet this morning:

I don’t know the person or people behind the @AsteriskTour twitter account, and I don’t begrudge them or anyone else their right to enjoy baseball however the heck they want to enjoy baseball. If the WWE has shown us anything, it’s that the presence of a clearly established villain can make rooting for the good guys more fun. And I take no issue whatsoever with anyone who looks forward to booing the Astros relentlessly when baseball returns: The Astros cheated, and booing is fun.

Based on the stats, the above tweet obviously resonates with a lot of baseball fans, and as such, it embodies a big part of what frustrates me about the response to the scandal. Again, I don’t really blame anyone if they want to get so mad as to insist the Astros “did something horrible to this game we all love” so much as I can’t bring myself to be nearly that mad.

And if you tuned in to the reaction from fans, media and other players in the wake of the Astros news, you’d know that the tweet above represents more or less the going sentiment in the baseball world. People threw around words like “disgraceful” and “disgusting” and “despicable,” and my inability to gin up that sort of outrage only further convinced me that I was always a poor fit for sports media.

I can’t often put jokes aside, myself. And here, we’re talking about baseball. Just baseball. Stupid baseball. If the Astros really did something horrible to baseball, who among us can argue that baseball didn’t have it coming? Baseball has done horrible things to my soul and my psyche on an annual basis for more than three decades running.

Also, we’re talking about dudes slamming a metal garbage can with a bat to relay signs stolen via a clubhouse video feed. It’s so damn silly! The Houston Astros, of all teams — so celebrated for their innovation and their technological savvy — found no more advanced method of communication than going H.A.M. on a trash can with a baseball bat. And when all the videos came out to expose it, it only seemed funnier. “Oh yeah, that’s definitely the sound of a baseball bat banging twice on a metal garbage can right before Alex Bregman jumped all over that curveball.”

Plus — plus! — I don’t believe for a moment that the Astros were the only team in recent years using technology to steal signs. We already know the Red Sox did something, we just don’t know exactly what because the commissioner’s office insists it has anything else to do right now. People who worked for the 2017 Astros now work all over the league. You’re telling me the only two instances of anything like this happening are the two we know about, perpetrated by two teams that happened to win World Series? C’mon. Some crappier club definitely pulled some shady stuff last year, too; we’ll never know because it didn’t help that much.

And that’s another thing! I’m not convinced it helped nearly as much as everyone assumes it helped! Obviously that doesn’t make it OK — cheating is cheating — but how often did anyone calling the Astros “a disgrace” and acting like their championship was purely the product of their cheating even mention that the 2017 Astros hit better on the road? Go look for yourself. They scored more runs on the road, with more hits, more doubles, more triples, more homers, a higher batting average, higher OBP, and higher slugging. Did everyone forget, in the months following the 2019 World Series, that the visiting team won every game in the 2019 World Series? It was a whole thing!

Finally, and by far the most frustrating aspect of the scandal, is that everyone got so busy wringing their hands and shaming the Astros that no one seemed to care that there’s a fairly easy way to ensure nothing like it ever happens again. By outfitting pitchers and catchers (and perhaps pitching coaches) with wireless earpieces or, heck, officially sanctioned buzzer systems, MLB could make sign-stealing impossible (and shave about 15 minutes’ worth of pitcher-catcher conferences off every game). Make clear that any effort to hack into the earpiece or buzzer system is grounds for an immediate lifetime ban, and maybe someone still tries it, but definitely most people don’t.

I understand that good, old-fashioned analog sign-stealing from second base has long been a part of baseball and I’ve participated in it myself. But it’s not like it makes the sport any more compelling or entertaining for fans, since we’re so rarely aware of it happening. And not that long ago, a guy losing a perfect game in the 9th on a clearly blown call at first base was “a part of baseball,” and no one seems to miss that part of baseball all that much now. We move forward.

Friday Q&A: Baseball stuff

arena athletes audience ball

One of the only free stock photos of baseball in WordPress is this ballpark that now hosts XFL games. (Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I’m limiting this to two questions today because I’m at my monthly drug infusion and typing with an IV in my hand is kind of uncomfortable. Both questions come via email from Paul M., but I’m going to take the liberty of switching their order.

If you’ve got questions you’d like considered for upcoming Friday Q&As, you can get at me on Twitter or email AskTedBerg-at-gmail.com.

Here’s Paul:

(This) is an idea I’ve been kicking around in my head for a while.  It will require that baseball returns to normal.  Teams are constantly trying to come up with better ways to use pitchers.  My idea would have a team moving from 5 starting pitchers to 9, sort of.  Pitchers would be asked to pitch 3 innings per “start” and pitch every 3 games.  The team would still have a 3-4 man bullpen.  One starter would start the game, then the next “starter” would come in for the 4th inning.  The next would start the 7th.  Over a full season, each starter would be expected to pitch 162 innings if he doesn’t miss a turn. 

This would most likely be best suited for teams that don’t have a true ace who can pitch 200-220 innings.  If you can get 200+ innings of Jacob deGrom, why would you give 40 of them to someone else?  If you factor in off days, an ace might still be able to pitch every 3rd day rather than every 3rd game and get closer to 180 or 190 innings.  I see pros and cons to this idea and could imagine a team like Tampa Bay trying it out.  It could cause problems for a manager putting together a lineup to maximize a matchup when he knows that by the 4th inning, there will be a different pitcher on the mound.  Will managers use up the bench earlier in the game or miss the opportunity and leave the biggest bat on the bench?  Egos and big salaries could get in the way.  Also, pitchers may be asked to train completely differently than they do now.  Pitchers would likely not get a chance to have a side day.  Finding 9 pitchers who are capable of pitching 162 innings for a season would be difficult for some teams.  Extra-inning games could be especially challenging since the bullpen arms would most likely be 1 inning guys.  In all, I think some team could make it work.  I’d love to hear your take.

I like this question for a couple reasons: First, Paul went a long way toward answering it already in his own email. All the potential concerns he lists — fragile egos, different training schedules, scarcity of durable arms, extra-inning games, etc. — are real ones preventing teams from trying something like this.

Second, I like this question because I think about it all the time. All the time. Sometimes I lay in bed awake at night thinking about better ways to construct a big-league pitching staff. Other times I’ll be spreading peanut butter onto bread to make a sandwich and think, “wait a minute, OK, a four-man rotation, with each starter limited to five innings on their start day but expected to provide one inning later in the week, four relievers that double as openers when the matchups make sense, three guys reserved for late innings, and one position player who doubles as a mop-up guy to eat up innings when his team is leading or trailing by a wide margin.” Stuff like that.

I do believe we are on the cusp of a paradigm shift in pitcher usage, as evidenced by the sudden proliferation of the opener strategy. As recently as five years ago, it felt like front offices were conservative to a fault out of fear that any shakeup gone awry would be grounds for dismissal. Now it seems like everyone better recognizes the potential value of innovation and is more willing to give MLB GMs and managers a chance to go bold. There are still limits, obviously, but just not like there used to be.

But I think the major issue with Paul’s idea is one he mentioned: If you’ve got a guy like Jacob deGrom on your staff, you want him throwing as many innings as he possibly can. If that’s more than 200 then it’s hard to figure how you could use him only as much as you use eight lesser pitchers without angering your clubhouse and fanbase both. And Major League athletes tend to be ridiculously competitive people who’ve dominated every level of the sport they’ve ever endeavored, so every guy is going to want the chance to prove he can be Jacob deGrom.

I suspect teams will ultimately move toward systems more flexible than the one Paul outlined, and — though there are inherent ethical concerns to this — I would not be surprised at all if wearable technologies monitoring arm health and fatigue eventually play bigger roles in pitcher usage.

My main thing is, I think it seems kind of nuts to have some of these guys wasting bullets in bullpens. “Throw days” obviously don’t bring the same intensity as actual outings, but adjusting the expectations for between-start sessions seems like a natural step forward to me.

Not every guy’s going to be so eager to change his routine, and at some point they’ll all need side sessions for tweaking and honing. But I feel like I’d ideally want to move to a system wherein every starter is piggybacked with another starter on his throw day, decreasing the general expectation for length of a traditional start — asking guys to go five or six at most in ideal conditions, basically — but allowing flexibility for when someone’s keeping his pitch count low and cruising through the middle innings.

woman in red cap while wearing baseball glove

Here is another one of the stock photos that comes up when I search for “baseball.” I have no idea. (Photo by Retha Ferguson on Pexels.com)

Here’s Paul again:

How do we handle the 2020 season?  I believe that we will not see real baseball until next year.  If by some chance they are able to play, I’d love to see this.  A 5 round tournament with all 30 teams.  Every round is best of seven.  If off days are limited until the LCS and World Series, it can be done in less than 2 months.  First step is seeding.  I would propose that Hall of Fame voters could each submit a power ranking of the teams separated by league.  The number 1 seed in each league would get a bye in the first round. 

This is obviously the question facing Major League Baseball right now, and it is completely unanswerable. A few weeks ago, when the league first announced the postponement of opening day, we heard about the steps it might take to still get in a full, 162-game season. Yesterday at Sports Illustrated, Tom Verducci laid out plans for a 43-game season.

Perhaps the most reasonable idea I’ve seen bandied about in recent days comes via my old colleague Bob Nightengale, who relayed a proposed plan to realign the league into Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues for a shortened 2020 season.

That makes a lot more sense to me than confining all 30 teams to Arizona, as teams are already set up to house players near their spring-training complexes and many players make their offseason homes near their teams’ spring-training complexes. It rains a lot in Florida and a lot of spring-training facilities lack the amenities of their big-league counterparts, but making every team’s spring home its full-time home for this one year seems like much less of a logistical nightmare that concentrating all the baseball in one place.

But then, we don’t know. Since no one can say right now with any confidence when it will be safe to play baseball again, it’s impossible to say how many games they’ll be able to get in, or if it’s worth planning for any baseball in 2020 at all.

Would I want to see a 30-team tournament? Oh, hell yeah. I usually argue that the outrageous length of the MLB season is part of what makes baseball so great, since the sheer number of games goes a long way toward mitigating the impact of randomness on the standings, and a tournament like the one Paul described would be patently absurd as an effort to actually reward the best baseball team with the championship trophy. But it would be extremely fun, and I’d watch the hell out of it.

I wouldn’t let Hall of Fame voters seed teams, though, because Hall of Fame voters get stuff wrong all the time, and the media outlets for which they work would have vested interests in teams from their regions advancing deep into the tournament. Also, reducing the entire season to a tournament would mean asking a bunch of Major League pitchers to get themselves ready to pitch in Major League games for the sake of a single start (and, perhaps, a single paycheck), though I imagine a bunch of these dudes would sign up for it in a heartbeat. Who wouldn’t, right now?

I had a larger point I was hoping to get to about feeling adrift in uncertainty, and how we’re now enduring an era in which the cheesy James Earl Jones speech from Field Of Dreams no longer applies — baseball is not now offering a constant to mark the time and remind us of all that once was good and that could be again — and how very much that sucks, and how desperate we all are for normalcy, and how I am increasingly skeptical that anything close to our old version of normalcy will return when it’s safe to start living our lives again. But the drug drip just finished and it doesn’t feel like a good idea to hang around a medical facility any longer than I absolutely have to.

Here’s a song that means a lot to me:

 

By the time I get to Arizona

two green cactus plants at daytime

Photo by Yigithan Bal on Pexels.com

There is no real sports news to be found. When that’s the case, members of the sports media understandably latch on to any fodder they can find for takes and perspectives because they’re paid to make sports content and there are only so many stories you can write about what some bored ballplayer Instagrammed. (I’m not even a member of the sports media and I’m doing it now, but I’m acknowledging it up front so I seem cooler than I am.)

At ESPN.com yesterday, Jeff Passan published a report detailing an MLB proposal to restart spring training as soon as next month, with real games starting in June in empty stadiums in Arizona. Passan’s an excellent reporter, and I have no doubt that such a plan has been discussed among MLB officials and MLBPA brass.

But if you’re wondering why nearly every baseball writer in the world has come out and dismissed the plan as wrongheaded and absurd, it’s because a) again, no one has anything else to do and b) it’s totally wrongheaded and absurd.

First and foremost, it assumes it’s going to be safe to put all the players up in Arizona starting in one month. Here in New York, we’ve already been sheltering-in-place for three and a half weeks, and yesterday set a new high mark for COVID deaths. Even if the rate of infection and death drops off starkly starting today, I assume we’re still going to want to keep people separated for at least another month to make sure the virus doesn’t come surging back. Right? We keep waiting on apexes and plateaus, but it’s not like once we hit peak disease it’ll immediately be safe to throw parties.

Also, the plan calls for quarantining players in Arizona hotels and motels for the entirety of their season, outside of the times they’re playing baseball. No family contact. Basically minimum-security prison, except instead of golf you play baseball.

Furthermore, have you ever set foot outside in Arizona in the daytime in May or June? You can’t do it, because it’s way too hot. Phoenix’s entire existence is a scam orchestrated by Friedrich.

Now I’m doing the same thing everyone else just did and telling you why the plan is dumb and unlikely to happen, but the point is only that the plan is dumb and unlikely to happen, and you probably already knew that by now.

The parts that seem especially nefarious, I think, are that includes the adoption of automated strike zones — purportedly to protect umpires — that it eliminates mound visits, and that it calls for “regular use of on-field microphones by players” to make the televised product more compelling.

I actually think all three of those changes would be good for baseball in the long run. My issue is that I suspect Major League Baseball thinks so, too, and that it seems kind of slimy to use the cover of a global pandemic to sneak them into the game at a time when the umpires union and players union would look petty for objecting. Also, it’s at least a little alarming that the details of the so-called Arizona plan should so closely follow Donald Trump’s conference call with sports commissioners over the weekend.

In any case, it’s almost certainly not happening, and every statement MLB has put out since the story broke and uproar followed has made clear that it’s unlikely. I wish it could happen, and I imagine you do too. A lot of us are saying things like, “I’d kill to watch baseball right now,” but we mean it metaphorically, and until we have more information about the virus and how it spreads and how to treat it and how to stop it, carrying out such a plan might mean literally killing people so we could watch baseball.

I’m going to hit you with a Venn diagram for the second day in a row:

Screenshot 2020-04-08 at 12.18.10 PM

“It’ll be safe to have Major League Baseball next month” falls exclusively in the green circle on the left. “We need to prioritize shit besides Major League Baseball” goes in the red circle on the right.

This song remains a banger:

What happened to the Doublelupa?

Screenshot 2020-04-07 at 1.09.18 PM

Heck yeah, I had a Triplelupa yesterday.

Though in this post I will detail some of the ways in which the Triplelupa is wholly unlike anything I’ve ever encountered on the Taco Bell menu, it is, at its heart — and like all the best Taco Bell things — a newly configured collection of straightforward Taco Bell ingredients: Seasoned beef, nacho cheese, lettuce, tomato, chalupa dough. As such, TedQuarters.net is prepared to call the Triplelupa: F@#$ing fabulous. 

Here’s what it looked like in the wild. I got mine with no tomatoes:

img_20200406_183445

Look at all those lupas!

If somehow something distracted you from the Triplelupa’s launch, and if you haven’t found a lot of time in recent weeks to think critically about the new options at your local Taco Bell, understand that the Triplelupa is built of three smaller sub-lupas, and Taco Bell intends for you to tear the individual lupas off the larger Triplelupa and eat them separately.

As far as I know, Taco Bell has never offered anything like that before. It feels like a page out of the Pizza Hut playbook, but thankfully, it’s a million times better than anything that has ever been served at Pizza Hut (except possibly the breadsticks, which are decent). And it begs the question: What the heck happened to the Doublelupa?

Once Taco Bell developed multi-lupa technology, wouldn’t it make sense — and be very much in keeping with how Taco Bell does things — to start by rolling out the Doublelupa with all the requisite pomp and circumstance, then, roughly six months to a year after it quietly left menus, unveiling the Triplelupa and blowing minds?

Call it a hunch, but I believe that the imprecise nature of Taco Bell ingredient distribution made the Doublelupa impossible. On the Triplelupa, the lupa on one side has nacho cheese, the lupa on the opposite side has chipotle sauce, and the middle lupa has both nacho cheese and chipotle sauce. It is basically a Venn diagram in chalupa form. One circle is the part of the chalupa that has nacho cheese, the other circle represents chipotle sauce, and the middle part is the center lupa.

Screenshot 2020-04-07 at 1.44.28 PM

This, to me, implies a couple of things: 1) It proved impossible to sauce two adjacent lupas without overlap, meaning the Doublelupa remains ony theoretical for now. 2) Taco Bell now asks for intentionally uneven sauce distribution from the heroes constructing our tacos, a paradigm shift. It’s hardly unheard of to get a Taco Bell thing with sour cream glopped on to only one half, but previously this was assumed to be the output of an inept hand with the sour cream gun.

Now that we know Taco Bell artisans have the capacity to sauce only half a taco, what wonders might come to the menu? The Quintuplelupa seems like a no brainer, but what about, like, a Heptadita, or a Partly Cheesy Fiesta Potatoes?

In an era in which we are tortured by uncertainty, in this one venue, the uncertainty is welcome. With one new thing, Taco Bell quietly changed everything. And without knowing what Taco Bell has in store for us, we can only strap in, hold on, and delight in the infinite possibilities for what could come next. It will probably have beef and cheese, and most likely some lettuce.

Friday Q&A

man holding microphone while talking to another man

Photo by Redrecords ©️ on Pexels.com

Let’s do this.

OK, so first of all, keep in mind that you’re asking this question of an unemployed man who spent his entire morning trying and failing to convince a toddler to put on pants. I never went to journalism school, I’m not sure I’ve ever called myself a “journalist” unironically, and I always tried my best to avoid big-picture strategy sessions because corporate buzzwords make me giggle inappropriately.

The short answer is: I have no idea, and you should look with great suspicion upon anyone who speaks with confidence on this topic and comes to a conclusion much firmer than, “I have no idea.”

There’s irony inherent in me talking out of my ass here: One of the aspects of contemporary media that I find most frustrating is the total obliteration of the notion of expertise. And though I can appreciate the value of scrutinizing and sometimes undercutting the entrenched institutions establishing expertise, there are outlets out there right now that essentially operate as though a Harvard-trained epidemiologist’s perspective on COVID-19 is no more valid than Kid Rock’s.

An innocuous example I frequently cite to describe some of my frustrations at USA Today is this article, headlined “Baseball players are getting fat like us,” and based on truly preposterous analysis that used BMI — a metric by which Mike Trout is considered obese — to reach a conclusion that would be dismissed out of hand by anyone who has seen a baseball game in the last 15 years.

I had received, rejected, and publicly mocked the same pitch less than a week before the paper amplified it in the opinion section, and I found it both troubling and unsurprising that whoever made the decision to run with it did so without consulting any of the six full-time staffers the company paid to know about baseball. “Baseball players are getting fat like us” is a great headline that people are going to mindlessly click and share on Facebook, and while I never met anyone who worked on the opinion page, I have no doubt those people were operating under a mandate to drive up traffic numbers. And, hey: Everyone has the right to an opinion! Let’s check in with Kid Rock for his take on Major League Baseball’s obesity problem.

Pageview-driven journalism, I believe, does more harm than most people realize, and I genuinely do not think Donald Trump would be the president today if the media industry had figured out and settled on a better way to make money.

None of that really even approaches an answer to Mike’s question, which — again — I am just not in any way qualified to answer. I can say (with hesitation, because I’d like to someday be employed again), that I think access can be overrated, especially in the case of something like Trump’s daily coronavirus misinform-athon. It just doesn’t really matter if you secure the ability to ask the guy a question when his answers show no correlation to the truth. Obviously there are huge benefits to access. But it often requires concessions.

And I can say that I hope paid subscription models prove successful in the long run, but that’s not at all insightful. Right now, it’s just as easy to imagine an accelerated Idiocracy, with press conferences by the end of Trump’s next term covered exclusively by the Ow My Balls! radio network.

The only other perspective I can offer is this: The internet is still a very new thing, historically speaking. Online media as we know it isn’t old enough to drink, and it’s probably unreasonable to expect an advancement of this magnitude to sort itself out so quickly. Right? The printing press generally gets a lot of credit for the onset of the Renaissance, but it was still some 70 years between Gutenberg’s invention and the Mona Lisa.

The excellent book The Sun and the Moon details an incredible hoax perpetrated by the New York Sun in the 1830s, but I found it just as interesting for its depiction of the early days of daily newspapers and their myriad parallels to the early days of online media. Early newspapers operated pretty similarly to early blogs — there were a ton of them, they were typically the work of one editor, they were unabashedly partisan, there was little accountability and constant jockeying for attention — and over time, some succeeded and some failed and some combined and some moved to the fringes.

Point is, I think, we’re still figuring this out. I don’t think the ball ever stops rolling, really, but I hope when it slows down, it does so in a place where there’s some appreciation for what’s actually true and not just what people will accept as true on Facebook.

OK, now to the food questions:

I’m sorry to say this, Ben, but it can’t be done. Taco Bell comes from magic, and the magic only happens inside Taco Bell kitchens. There are a bunch of recipes online that attempt to approximate it, but I’ve tried precisely none of them, because I don’t believe Taco Bell is something mere humans can replicate with any accuracy.

We talking just grilling, or full-blown smoking? If you mean the latter, I’m best, most practiced, and most consistent with baby back ribs, primarily because they’re so widely available and they’re my wife’s favorite of the meats one might smoke. But my personal favorite, if I can get it right, are beef ribs (a.k.a. “dinosaur ribs”). They’re hard to find and tricky to cook, but when you nail it, they’re so good. Better than brisket even, I think because the fat is better distributed throughout the meat.

For just straight grilling, it’s either skirt steak or chicken thighs. I cook a heck a lot of the latter, and I’ve gotten pretty good at making it so the skin gets nice and crispy without drying out the interior meat. Dark meat chicken is so far superior to white meat chicken that it’s absurd they charge you more for white meat at fried chicken places.

The bar for “replacement level” plummeted so much in the last two weeks that, if we’re drawing an analogy to baseball, it’s like the league just added 25 expansion teams.

A well-made PB&J, I think, has always been sturdily above-replacement, though a bad one — especially if someone fails to put peanut butter on both sides, so one side of the bread gets sogged up with jelly — can definitely perform at replacement level.

Three weeks ago, I would’ve told you a replacement level sandwich is some pre-packaged lunchmeat (think Oscar Mayer ham) on white bread with American cheese. The type of sandwich you might find pre-made and pre-cut in the refrigerator area at a gas station convenience store: Readily and perpetually available, inexpensive, bad, but not going to kill you.

Today, I made a sandwich from two pieces of American cheese on a toasted English muffin from a box that had been sitting in my freezer for about a year. That’s the replacement-level sandwich now.