Monthly Archives: December 2010

Best Food Experiences of 2010

Food is such a glorious, God-given focal point of life. Out of gratefulness for having it in such abundance and regularity, why not honor the memory of its high points this year? The following are my favorite 15 instances of Epicurean delight from the last year, in chronological order.

YBF (Whittier, CA, January): Cheese course. Asagio cup with apple gelée and cave aged gruyere, blue cheese ice cream with maderia poached fig and wildflower sage honey, Brioche macaron with Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog goat cheese.

Tory Row (Cambridge, MA., March): Confit duck salad. With poached cherries, pickled shallots, frisee, arugula, pink vinaigrette.

Bongo Room (Chicago, April): Croissant sandwich. Grilled croissant with melted muenster & crisp bacon, with one egg any style & hash browns.

Urth Caffe (Los Angeles, June): Urth Bread Pudding. Topped with caramelized bananas in a bowl of steamed milk.

Georges (La Jolla, CA, July): English Pea Risotto: With pea shoots, Parmesan and truffle oil.

Nickel Diner (Los Angeles, July): Maple Bacon Donut. As strange and wonderful as you imagine it will be!

Magnolia Bakery (Los Angeles, August): Banana Pudding, Catered at my book release party. The best banana pudding ever!

Napa Rose (Anaheim, August): Wood-fried pizzetta. Smoked American prosciutto, red flame grapes, caramelized onions, & Cambozola cheese.

Frank (Toronto, August): Baked St. Maure raw milk goats cheese and caramelized onions baked in puff pastry on a salad of wild arugula and roasted baby heirloom beets.

Made in China (Beijing, October): Peking Duck with sesame pancakes, and for dessert, friend wonton filled with banana and chocolate, drizzled with coconut cream sauce.

Roppongi (La Jolla, CA, November): Asian Tapas. Indian Spiced Kefir cheese with flatbread, Mongolian shredded duck quesadillas, “Hot Rock” thin-sliced steak with Sesame Goma sauce, “La Jolla Sunset” sushi roll (Spicy Dungeness crab, salmon, avocado, Meyer lemon, honey-miso glaze, rasberry coulis).

LA Mill Coffee (Silver Lake, CA, December): Orange Infused Cappuccino with Cacao, paired with a cherry creme fraiche scone.

The Park (Echo Park, CA, December): Braised Vintage Brisket. With red wine sauce, sautéed escarole with caramelized apples & potato latkes. My birthday dinner!

Forage (Silver Lake, CA, December): Orange Persimmon Ricotta Cake. With neighborhood oranges and organic dry-farmed Hachiya persimmons from Starr Ranch in Paso Robles. My birthday cake! (pictured above)

The Olde Ship (Fullerton, CA, December): Traditional British Christmas menu. Roast Breast of Duck glazed with a rich red currant & port reduction sauce, served with Croquette Potatoes, Roast Parsnips, Fresh Buttered Brussels Sprouts and Carrots Vichy. Dessert: Sticky Toffee Pudding served with heavy cream.

Favorite Books of 2010

Because it’s impossible (at least for me) to read enough new release books in one year to even begin to make claims to a “best of” list, my book list is strictly a “favorites” list. The following are five books that came out this year that delighted me, provoked me, informed me and thrilled me… books I’ll remember and will recommend to others.

5) Sects, Love & Rock ‘N Roll by Joel Heng Hartse: Part personal narrative and part cultural history, Joel Heng Hartse’s musical memoir is a lovingly written ode to all that is weird and wonderful, disturbing and divine about the world of Christian rock. Conversant in everything from White Town to Rebecca St. James, Radiohead to Michael W. Smith, Hartse provides a richly observant, nostalgic document of the shaping artifacts and sonic ephemera of his evangelical youth. His book paints a picture of the recent past that is funny, poignant, and therapeutic for anyone who grew up in a similar milieu. One of my most enjoyable reading experiences of the year.

4) Half a Life by Darin Strauss: This short, simple memoir focuses on one tragic moment in Darin Strauss’ adolescence and how it’s affected him since. In high school, Strauss was driving in his Long Island town when a girl on a bike rode into the road in front of him. The impact killed her, and though entirely accidental, Strauss spent the next few decades—half of his life—struggling with the grief of having been the cause of a classmate’s death. Through exceptionally vivid, poetic prose, Strauss takes us through the accidental moment and its aftermath, letting us grieve alongside him, but in the gradual direction of healing.

3) Absence of Mind by Marilynne Robinson: Marilynne Robinson amazes me. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of such fiction masterpieces as Housekeeping, Gilead & Home can construct breathlessly melodic sentences, whether she’s writing about an Iowa homestead or the Freudian self. This collection of essays adapted from Robinson’s lectures at Yale in 2009 features the writer/thinker at her most intellectually rigorous and rhetorically forceful. Taking on the science/faith dichotomy and the “parascientific” bias against religion and the complexity of human consciousness, Robinson does some serious in-the-trenches work to bridge the intellectual gap between science and religion. It’s a tall order, but Robinson is up for the task and this book—though sometimes dense and certainly not casual beach reading—is an invaluable resource.

2) Freedom by Jonathan Franzen: Freedom is that rare book that attempts to capture the zeitgeist through a sprawling, ensemble fiction saga, and succeeds. This is one instance where the hype was totally justified. Franzen’s ambitious novel touches on everything from politics to pop culture to religion, spanning several decades of its protagonist family’s history. In addition to being a dead-on portrait of the mid-Bush era Aughts, the book has great insights into the American interplay between populism and elitism and the paradox of wanting to uphold personal liberty and freedom while also wanting people to act the way we want them to.

1) After You Believe by N.T. Wright: It’s been quite the year for N.T. Wright. The prolific pastor/theologian churned out another couple books and continued to elicit much respect and a fair share of criticism in intellectual Christian circles. Wheaton College devoted an entire theology conference to his work in April, and his appearance at this fall’s Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) conference was the talk of the theology blogosphere. In After You Believe, part three of an apparent trilogy which included Simply Christian and Surprised By Hope, Wright puts aside the justification and New Perspective on Paul controversies and focuses on the “how then shall we live?” question in the Christian life. While the debates continue to rage about the ins and outs of how salvation works, Wright offers a refreshing and profound explication of the biblical model for the Christian life after we’re saved—what we are saved for. His analysis of the role and purpose of Christian virtue is grounded in his characteristically comprehensive eschatological framework. In a single chapter (Ch. 3: “Priests and Rulers”), Wright offers a stunningly concise, beautifully holistic summary of God’s mission for earth and man’s role within it. For Christians who might question their purpose or wonder about the significance of their individual life in the grand scheme of things, this book is for you.

Honorable Mention: To Change the World by James Davison Hunter, The Deep Things of God by Fred Sanders, Generous Justice by Tim Keller, For the Beauty of the Church, ed. by David O. Taylor, Generation Ex-Christian by Drew Dyck, Zero History by William Gibson.

Best Documentaries of 2010

Because I love movies and I love sharing good movies with others, I love end-of-year listmaking. I love reading others critics’ and friends’ lists and seeing what resonated with them, and I love the process of looking back on the films that have stuck with me this year as I compile my own list. It’s a great opportunity to introduce new audiences to the year’s cinematic cream of the crop. I’m currently putting together my top ten list for 2010, but since there are still a handful of films I need to see, I’m going to wait until the middle of next week (around Jan. 5) to post my list. In the meantime, and because 2010 was a great year for documentaries, here are my picks for the top 5 documentaries of the year. If you have Netflix, I believe all of these are available to rent or watch instantly:

5) The Art of the Steal (dir. Don Argott): This insightful, gripping film exposes what it touts as one of the biggest recent scandals no one has heard about: The fight for control of the legendary private early modern collection of Arthur C. Barnes. With a great cast of heroes and villains and an exemplary investigative journalistic approach, Steal tells a story that represents some of the biggest tensions in the art world, but also society in general (class, race, etc).

4) Sweetgrass (prod. Ilisa Barbash): In the spirit of classic nature documentary, this is a film of pure observation–following modern-day cowboys as they lead their flocks of sheep up into Montana’s stunning Absaroka-Beartooth mountains for summer pasture. With no commentaries, talking heads or background information (until the final minute of the film), Sweetgrass is a film that lets its subjects just be. And the result, if you have the patience for it, is breathtaking.

3) Restrepo (dir. Sebastian Junger, Tim Hetherington): Until last year’s Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, no film had remotely done justice to the current military conflict in Iraq. And until this year’s phenomenal documentary Restrepo, the same was true for Afghanistan. Restrepo, a raw, on-the-ground combat documentary that follows American soldiers fighting in Afghanistan’s harrowing Korangal Valley over the course of 14 months, is a must-see. For most of us, it’s the first and only glimpse we’ve gotten inside the day-to-day life of the war in Afghanistan.

2) Waiting for Superman (dir. Davis Guggenheim): It might seem a tall order to make a succinct, engaging documentary on something like “the problems of education in America today,” and indeed it is. But Guggenheim manages the task, in part because he frames the issue in personal terms, by focusing on five individual students and their families, each hoping to win “the lottery” (see also The Lottery, another great 2010 documentary) to get into a charter school. It’s an engaging, entertaining, disturbing film, full of infuriating facts and heartbreaking figures about the state of education and the uphill battle we face if we want to turn the ship around.

1) Exit Through the Gift Shop (dir. Banksy … maybe?): Whether or not this is a documentary in the proper sense is an open question that you’ll be asking far after you’re done watching this film, which is certainly one of the best of the year. Whether it’s fact or fiction, we don’t know; What we do know is that it’s an insightful, tremendously entertaining study of street art, fashion, the culture industry and “The Art World.” Banksy–mysterious agitator/icon that he is–is somewhere in there, in front of and (maybe) behind the camera, poking and provoking his audience in the direction of self-examination as only he can.

Honorable mention: The Lottery, William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe, Joan Rivers: Piece of Work, Babies, Inside Job.

Meaningful Merriment

Christmas is a time of remembrance, of nostalgia—for the Christmases of our past, and for that Bethlehem instance of which nativity renderings, Biblical accounts and Sandi Patty songs are a continued reminder.

For me, Christmas is this evolving storehouse of memories that includes my grandmother’s pecan pie, Christmas Eve candlelight services followed by steak sandwiches, sprawling family games of Trivial Pursuit and Rook, my mom playing “O Holy Night” on the violin, bowl games on TV, family trips to the movies, bowling on Christmas morning (an annual tradition), Evie’s “Come On Ring Those Bells” on vinyl, and an underlying ambiance of John Hughes-flavored suburban Chicago Christmas (Home Alone, Christmas Vacation).

Of course the list could go on and on. We could all reminisce for hours (and, over the next few days, probably will) about the memories we’ve shared over the years. And that’s a good thing.

One of the wonderful things about Christmas is that—in spite of the way we’ve cluttered it up and made it a frenzied, high-stress bonanza of party-hopping and excessive shopping—it’s still ultimately a holiday that glories in just being. For a few days we all gather with friends and family and enjoy things: pie, eggnog, presents, music, glittering ornaments, cute babies, football, funny stories and nostalgia. There are few other times in life when we collectively pause to celebrate life, in fellowship with our fellow human, thankful for the beauties and blessings we enjoy.

And then, a week later on New Year’s Eve—before we launch into the doing of the new year and its accompanying resolutions—our celebration of being climaxes with a day devoted to remembrance: The highs and lows of the year gone by, the friends made and loves lost, the tragedies and triumphs and trips we’ve taken here and there. We toast to it all, sipping up the sweet bubbly of days gone by and another year lived. We are present, still breathing, still tasting and seeing the world’s goodness where we can find it.

Oh, grace! The Incarnation.

How else could we truly enjoy the gifts and surprises of this world apart from Christ’s Incarnation, taking on flesh and walking on the same dirt as we, drinking the same water, smelling those same roses? The Incarnation we celebrate at Christmas is the very thing that gives us permission to celebrate in the way we do: Through things like peppermint mochas, It’s a Wonderful Life, or a concert performance of Handel’s Messiah.

The goodness of the world—the “all is not lost,” salvageable beauty of it—is legitimated in the God-made-flesh moment of Christmas. In that epoch of history, the climax of so many centuries of hopes and fears and expectations, heaven literally came down to earth and took up residence within it. A new kingdom began—physical, tangible, unexpected. Christmas is the celebration of life as it can be lived in the light of that very real hope, in the knowledge that, though we will have trouble, we should take heart because Christ has overcome the world (John 16:33).

Sometimes it frustrates me when churches skip so quickly over the Incarnation or act like it’s merely a feel-good stepping stone to the ultimate apotheosis of creation: The cross. I don’t really like going to Christmas Eve services where a few Christmas songs are followed by a song about the cross and the Lord’s Supper. Why are we in such a rush to get to Easter? Not that Easter isn’t monumentally significant. But isn’t Christmas majestic and mysterious enough to warrant its own set-aside time of worship and meditation?

It seems to me that Christmas need not do much more than be a celebration of creation in order to be a significant memorial to the event it symbolizes. When this planet welcomed Christ, it welcomed redemption, purpose and light. The world changed in that moment, and things that seemed pointless before were suddenly imbued with meaning.

And so at Christmas, it’s fitting that we celebrate by simply enjoying that meaningful creation. Looking back at the blessings we’ve been given, looking forward to the second Advent of the Redeemer Christ, but also glorying in the goodness of the moment: A fire in the fireplace, Grandma’s pies in the oven, wrapped presents under the tree and nothing to do but enjoy, enjoy, enjoy it all.

The Tree of Life Trailer

Christmas came early for many of us last Wednesday, when Fox Searchlight released the first trailer for Terrence Malick’s highly secretive, incredibly anticipated fifth film, The Tree of Life. If you haven’t watched it yet, stop everything, turn up the sound and immerse yourself in this:

One suspects that Mr. Malick, perfectionist auteur that he is, labored many weeks in the editing room on the trailer alone. In addition to being a truly effective trailer (in that it stokes one’s curiosity and kicks the online chatter into overdrive), it is also vintage Malick: beautifully photographed with gorgeous, Germanic music (in this case Smetana’s “The Moldau”), juxtaposing the domestic everyday with the universe’s grandeur in a way that highlights the glorious majesty of both.

In his description of the film, the reclusive Malick wrote that the film “ends in hope, acknowledging the beauty and joy in all things, in the everyday and above all in the family—our first school—the only place that most of us learn the truth about the world and ourselves, or discover life’s single most important lesson, of unselfish love.”

Certainly the film looks to follow in Malick’s singular and unconventional cinematic style, with ponderous, fragmentary voiceover and a feast of nature photography strung together in a structure more akin to a Hölderlin poem than a Hollywood film. Like his other films, Tree of Life will doubtless find Malick exploring the Heideggerian notions of being he’s been struck by ever since studying them as a philosophy professor at MIT in the 60s. In his films Malick certainly seems to share Heidegger’s notion that the world reveals itself to us through our moods and emotion, not cognition and rationalism; that truth and beauty exist most fully in the unexplained and momentary experience of encounter, in the visceral primacy and invasive “thereness” of nature, whether in close-ups of dying animals (Badlands), glistening vistas of blowing wheat fields (Days of Heaven), or shimmering sunlit rivers in a dark, unexplored land (The New World).

The consistency with which Malick’s characters and images ponder humanity through the lens of the infinite and the divine (through regular monologues about God, camera glimpses upward toward the sky/light, etc.) definitely seems to reflect Heidegger’s concept of man’s terrestrial “dwelling,” situated between earth and heaven, aware of mortality but also infinity. “Man, as man,” Heidegger wrote, “has always measured himself with and against something heavenly.”

Here are some other fun tidbits/rumors about the film to further stoke your curiosity/excitement:

  • The film tells the story of Jack from youth (Hunter McCraken) to middle age (Sean Penn) and his difficulty reconciling “the way of nature” of his survival-of-the-fittest father (Brad Pitt) and “the way of grace” of compassionate mother (Jessica Chastain).
  • In a 2008 interview about his 40 year working relationship with Malick, production designer Jack Fisk said the following: “It’s such an important film to Terry and I think this is the film he’s most wanted to make. His approach to filmmaking just keeps evolving. We made this film with hardly any lighting. People were working without scripts. He would dole them out and take them back. It was Terry at his most excited. He seemed stronger and more inventive than any time in the last forty years… I saw some dailies and when I see this footage it looked like you’d found some film left over from the 50s. It was just magical… It’s not structured like a regular film. I think it could change some parts of cinema. I’m just so excited about it. I told Terry, “your going to make it hard for me to work on another film after this. Because they look like films, and this… is different.”
  • There are unconfirmed rumors that an IMAX film called Voyage of Time, reportedly a companion piece to The Tree of Life and narrated by Brad Pitt, will be released to coincide with Life. The IMAX film reportedly covers “the birth and death of the universe.”
  • There will be dinosaurs. Mike Fink, who is doing effects work on the film, reported this to Empire magazine: “We’re animating dinosaurs, but it’s not Jurassic Park. The attempt is to treat it as if somehow a camera wound up in the middle of these periods when dinosaurs roamed the earth and creatures first started to emerge from the sea onto the land. The first mammals appearing. We’re doing a number of creatures all seriously scientifically based… I think when it’s finished it’ll be something that’s referred to for years.”
  • Douglas Trumbull, the visual f/x pioneer who collaborated with Stanley Kubrick on 2001 and Steven Spielberg on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, was reportedly brought in to help with visual effects.
  • In one version of the screenplay for Life, the story opened with “a sleeping god, underwater, dreaming of the origins of the universe, starting with the big bang and moving forward, as fluorescent fish swam into the deity’s nostrils and out again.” Malick supposedly wanted to create something that has never been seen before, and dispatched cameramen all over the world. They shot micro jellyfish on the Great Barrier Reef volcanic explosions on Mount Edna, and ice shelves breaking off in Antarctica. Special effects consultant Richard Taylor describes sections of the script as “pages of poetry, with no dialogue, glorious visual descriptions.”

Best Albums of 2010

It’s that time of year again. Best of the year time. I’m starting with albums, because I doubt any new release between now and 2011 will disrupt the top ten I’ve been compiling in my mind the last few weeks (I’ll be exclusively listening to Christmas music for the next few weeks in any case). So here are my picks, in reverse order:

10) Jonsi, Go: Jonsi’s first solo album is as lovely, soaring, and musical as you’d hope it would be. Nothing groundbreaking here, but an album that I’ve come back to time and time again this year. Download now: “Tornado,” “Hengilas.”

9) Surfer Blood, Astro Coast: Seems like years ago that this album came out, but it was actually just early 2010. A great debut full of fresh, sunny, addictive pop gems. Download now: “Floating Vibes,” “Twin Peaks.”

8) Joanna Newsom, Have One On Me: This triple album may be a bit, um, much, but it’s utterly beautiful and full of all the sorts of unexpected sounds and squeaks and timeless melodies we come to expect from Ms. Newsom. Download now: “Baby Birch,” “No Provenance.”

7) Sufjan Stevens, Age of Adz: The biggest “grower” of the year for me. I wasn’t a fan at first, but listened to it over and over again in China, and couldn’t stop. Sufjan, you’ve done it again. Download Now: “Futile Devices,” “Get Real Get Right.”

6) Vampire Weekend, Contra: This sophomore album is anything but a slump. Vampire Weekend capitalize on their privileged post-colonialist preppie rep and give us some gems of pastiche pop. Download now: “White Sky,” “Diplomat’s Son.”

5) Arcade Fire, The Suburbs: Not quite as kinetic as their previous albums, but a little fuller and more mature. Great themes, motifs, and suburban angst. Download now: “City With No Children,” “We Used to Wait.”

4) Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy: The one great thing about Kanye’s ego and obsessive narcissism is that it forces him to be really anal about creating only the very best craft. Thus, we have an album like this, which is so painstakingly assembled so as to be white hot and groundbreaking, that it more or less is white hot and groundbreaking. Download now: “All of the Lights,” “Lost in the World.”

3)  The Radio Dept., Clinging to a Scheme: The most unassuming album on my list, and yet one of the most gorgeous. At scarcely more than a half hour in length, this brisk and inauspicious album is a no-frills, to-the-point dose of shoegaze mood. Download now: “Heaven’s On Fire,” “Never Follow Suit”

2) The National, High Violet: A near-perfect assemblage of all the best aspects of The National. Brooding, melodic, somberly hopeful, urban. It effortlessly captures many of the messy preoccupations of the modern American man. Good companion piece to The Suburbs. Download now: “Sorrow,” “England.”

1) The Walkmen, Lisbon: From the first gleefully straightforward (and yet conflicted and weary) 30 seconds of opener “Juveniles,” to the bare-bones lamentations of the title track’s closing strains, Lisbon is one long, tragic, minimalist bit of nostalgia and eulogy. It’s an album that somehow captures both resignation and hope, and which glories in goodness as much as it teases out the rough-edged particularities of life’s hard knocks. Just listen to the mournful mariachi horns of “Stranded” and you get a picture of the sort of Remember the Alamo (by way of cigarettes and whiskey) post-traumatic Americana that kind of defines Lisbon. Download now: “Stranded,” “Blue as Your Blood”

Honorable Mention: Mumford & Sons, Sigh No More; Over the Rhine, The Long Surrender; Best Coast, Crazy for You; Deerhunter, Halcyon Digest; Girl Talk, All Day; John Mark McMillan, The Medicine; The New Pornographers, Together; Sandra McCracken, In Feast or Fallow; Yeasayer, Odd Blood; Das Racist, Sit Down Man.

The Social (Flirting) Network

When I found out about likealittle.com last week (Biola has its own site), I wasn’t the least bit surprised that it was the Next Big Social Media Thing to hit college campuses. The site, self-described as “a flirting-facilitator platform (or FFP, for advanced users)” basically allows college students to kill time in class by posting flirtatious notes to the person they’ve got their eye on across the room.

Billed as a “dangerously exciting” anonymous flirting experience” (notice the bolded anonymous), likealittle is all about objectifying the object of your affection: Female, Brunette. You are probably the most beautiful girl on this campus. Your hair is like auburn silk, and your eyes are literally breathtaking—fathomless, ever-moving, always-sparkling pools of green and brown.”

Perhaps after being inspired by The Social Network‘s portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg’s entrepreneurial jackpot, likealittle was founded on October 25 by Standford University students Evan Reas, Prasanna Sankaranarayanan and Shubham Mittal. That was just about 6 weeks ago. Now likealittle is on more than 50 campuses, growing exponentially. It’s as if Reas & Co. watched The Social Network and decided, “hey we can do this!” And they’re in Palo Alto, hiring interns as they expand rapidly. I wonder if the guy from Napster is involved?

Though it remains to be seen whether likealittle will be more than a flavor-of-the-week fad, its popularity certainly underscores some of the broader social trends happening among “Generation Y” (or whatever the generation in college is called). Namely: The increasing preference to mediate relationships (even the very initial stage of relationships, such as flirting) via technology and avoid the difficulties and awkwardness of face-to-face communication wherever possible.

Naturally, if there is technology that makes the awkward things in life less awkward, we seize upon it. Who wants to nervously stumble over their words when making small talk with a girl they like when a cleverly crafted likealittle message will do? It’s the same reason why Gen Y communicates almost exclusively by texting on their phones rather than talking. Texting is more controlled. More efficient. Easier. It’s the same reason why updating scores of friends and family about your life in one fell swoop on Facebook is preferable to the laborious process of calling each of them or writing an email or letter to them.

Technology’s dominant raison d’etre has always been about efficiency. Making something easier, quicker, less painful. Think medicine, automobiles, assembly line, central heating. Communication technologies are similarly in the business of making the difficulties of communication easier. But there are always unintended consequences. Likealittle makes flirting easier, but it also makes it anonymous, objectifying and addictive (“dangerously” so). And, as with its various forbears, likealittle thrives because it creates a safe, low-pressure, “just me and my computer/phone” environment where it’s easy to say whatever we want. It removes those pesky filters (in person tact, nervous self-restraint) that sometimes keep us from saying the things that pop into our heads. As with texting and other “nonverbal signals be damned!” modes of fast-paced, send-before-you-think-too-much-about-it communication, likealittle feeds the culture’s ever worsening addictions to communication as diversion/commodity and narcissistic self validation.

Add likealittle to the long list (Twitter, Facebook, etc) of places college students now will want to check up hourly to see what people are saying about them, who is responding to their posts, etc. Add it to the list of things that make me fear for the future of unmediated, brick-and-mortar relational existence.