Roast beef friday

A few days ago, I was responding to a post on Facebook – not even a friend’s post; a commercial post, from Kroger – and I recalled the wonderful Cook’s Illustrated / America’s Test Kitchen recipe for eye of round. I got to thinking that I hadn’t made that eye of round in ages. So I went to the grocery store yesterday – Kroger, no less – and eye of round was on sale.

Well played, Kroger.

I can’t link to the actual recipe because it’s behind a paywall. But here’s a blogger who reviewed it, and I’ll give you some of the high points. Eye of round is more expensive than pot roast cuts but usually less expensive than fancy oven roasts. But you have to treat it well in order to get it to turn out well as an oven roast. The ATK recipe involves coating it liberally with kosher salt and then wrapping it in plastic for 24 hours. It looks like too much salt, but it gets distributed throughout the meat and helps tenderize and flavor it.

Then, you sear it in a hot cast-iron skillet, to give you the lovely brown crust, before putting it in a very low and slow oven. (I should have added pepper before searing but forgot.) There are some times in the recipe but they suggest, because of the nature of it, that you go by probe thermometer instead of by the clock. I’m talking about the kind of thermometer where you put the probe in the meat but the digital readout sits outside the oven, attached by magnet to the oven door. You cook the meat slowly until it reaches 115 degrees (if you want to wind up medium rare) or 125 (if your final destination is medium). Then, then you turn the oven off, without opening the door, and let it sit in the oven. The carryover heat should get you an extra 15 degrees, which is 130 for a nice medium rare or 140 for medium. You slice very thinly, against the grain, and it tastes like a much more expensive roast than it really is. Medium rare is the way to go.

The roast is in the oven right now. Of course, I knew there was a lot of browned goodness in the cast iron skillet I used for searing, so I deglazed the skillet with a little water and am using the water to make rice in my rice cooker. The rice will help tide me over until the beef is done, since that will take a couple of hours. When your’re cooking for yourself, it doesn’t all have to get done at once.

I’ll have a few wonderful hot slices tonight, but it will also be quite good cold in the next few days.

the folksmen

The current movie “Inside Llewyn Davis” is set during the folk music boom of the early 1960s; as I understand it, it’s a drama, although no doubt suffused with that special quirkiness that only the Coen brothers can supply.

But the publicity surrounding “Inside Llewyn Davis,” as well as the return of the Jane Lynch-hosted “Hollywood Game Night,” has me thinking about one of my favorite comedies, the great Christopher Guest mockumentary “A Mighty Wind.”

“A Mighty Wind” is set in the modern day but references the folk era. A manager of numerous folk-era acts passes away, and the family decides to stage a tribute concert for public television, bringing together three of the late manager’s most-famous acts. Two of those three groups haven’t performed together in many years.

“The Folksmen” (Guest himself, Harry Shearer and Michael McKean) are in the mold of the Kingston Trio or the Chad Mitchell Trio. You may notice that The Folksmen are played by the same three actors from “This Is Spinal Tap,” which – while directed by Rob Reiner – was the template from which Guest fashioned his own mockumentaries. Guest, Shearer and McKean had created the characters before the movie, and in fact the Folksmen were the opening act for one of those real-life Spinal Tap concert tours. They were sometimes booed by audience members who didn’t realize that they were actually the members of Spinal Tap in different costumes.

“The New Main Street Singers,” a nine-member group including characters played by Lynch, Paul Dooley, John Michael Higgins and Parker Posey, are a parody of the New Christy Minstrels and other aggressively-upbeat ensembles. (One of the Folksmen derisively refers to them as “a toothpaste commercial.”) Unlike the other two acts, the New Main Street Singers have been performing through the decades, albeit with a constantly-changing lineup. (Dooley’s character is the only original member left, and he’s portrayed as being somewhat disengaged.) Lynch and Higgins are hysterical as the husband and wife now leading the group, who have their own somewhat unconventional metaphysical views.

“Mitch and Mickey” – played by SCTV alumni Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy – were a married couple during their folk-era heyday, but had an acrimonious divorce which landed Mitch in a mental hospital, from which he’s emerged as a bit of a burnout. Mickey is now happily married and out of show business. Their signature tune from back in the day included a kiss between the two of them at a critical moment, and no one is sure how they’re going to handle that moment in their reunion performance, or even if they’ll be able to make it that far given the bad blood between them. Levy was Guest’s collaborator in creating characters and situations for all of his mockumentaries, and he is nothing short of brilliant as a performer in this one.

The mockumentary moves back and forth among the three groups as they prepare for the big night, and various other characters. Fred Willard is hysterical as a smarmy TV star-turned-publicist who is trying to promote the concert.

Bob Balaban plays the concert’s producer, the nervous-nelly son of the deceased manager, and he’s very funny as well.

Everything builds to the climactic concert, during which one of the key players suddenly disappears. It’s very funny stuff, and the music (written by the cast!) is great, functioning as both parody of, and tribute to, the folk era. We used to listen to my parents’ Chad Mitchell Trio album every Saturday when I was growing up, and I have my own copy on CD.

A wonderful movie, definitely worth checking out.

A big finish

I doubt many of you watched “Strike Me Pink,” the 1936 Eddie Cantor comedy that just ended on Turner Classic Movies. I didn’t really either – I was busy with other stuff after getting home from Relay meeting. But if you did watch, you saw a character named Parkyakarkus. I’ve blogged about him before, but it seems like a good opportunity to repeat myself, something to which I’m seldom averse.

Parkyakarkus, a sort of malaprop-spouting Greek stereotype, was the creation of a character actor named Harry Einstein. He created the character on Eddie Cantor’s radio show, and it became so popular that Einstein (who sometimes used the stage name Harry Parke) was eventually billed as just Parkyakarkus, the same way that Paul Reubens is sometimes billed as just Pee-Wee Herman, with no mention of his real name anywhere.

Parkyakarkus is not well-remembered today, except for two trivia facts.

Trivia fact #1: Parkyakarkus, in character, was on the dais for a Friar’s Club roast of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in 1958. He had just finished his routine, which was very well-received, prompting emcee Art Linkletter to wonder aloud why Parkyakarkus wasn’t currently employed on a TV or radio program. Parkyakarkus returned to his seat, sat down, and immediately slumped into the lap of Milton Berle, seated next to him. Berle asked if there was a doctor in the house, and the audience – assuming this was just some sort of bit, a crazy capper to Parkyakarkus’ routine – erupted in laughter yet again.

Berle wasn’t kidding. Harry Einstein had just suffered a fatal heart attack. While he was moved backstage, where doctors would work in vain to save his life, Linkletter called on Tony Martin to go ahead and sing a song he’d planned to perform later in the evening.

The song was “There’s No Tomorrow.” There was no tomorrow for Harry Einstein, who was pronounced dead a few hours later.

Trivia fact #2: Harry Einstein had two Two of Harry Einstein’s sons, Albert and Bob, both of whom followed him into show business. Albert Einstein wasn’t about to go into show business with the same name as the famous physicist, so he became actor and filmmaker Albert Brooks. Bob Einstein became a comedy writer, working on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” and appearing on that show as Officer Judy.

It was in the 1970s, however, that Bob Einstein would discover his signature character – and, like his father, he’s usually billed by his character name, not by his professional name. Bob Einstein is familiar to people of my generation as hapless-but-arrogant stuntman “Super Dave” Osborne.

news from the ding-a-ling

WP_20140108_003I made a reckless, spur-of-the-moment decision tonight, and I blame my sister-in-law in North Carolina.

That may not really be fair; I’ve thought that handbells were beautiful ever since I first heard a handbell choir play. But it was Kelly who was my closest example. She really enjoyed it and talked with pride about playing.

My church, First United Methodist in Shelbyville, resumed its Wednesday night meal this week after a two-month break for the holidays and other church functions. There’s a catered meal, followed by a variety of other activities. I used to stay for the Bible study, but for various reasons I dropped out, and for the past year or year and a half I had just been showing up for the dinner and then going home.

Tonight, during the announcements before the meal, they mentioned that a new handbell choir was forming. FUMC has had handbells for many decades – the bells themselves are 40 years old, although they were recently refurbished and have new handles and what have you.

WP_20140108_001I don’t know what made me decide to show up for the handbell choir, but I did. We have kids and a few adults. Dulcie Davis, an elementary school principal, is our director. Her mother and aunt, Ann Spencer and Ardis Caffey, are also there to help, and they’ve been involved with the handbells for generations. We have both children and adults in the choir. I think there were 18 of us behind the table tonight.

Dulcie suggested that John Hendren, Allen Doyle and I play the heaviest bells, down at the low end.

I’ve never had any musical talent. I taught myself to play the harmonica a few years ago, and I keep meaning to get serious about it, but I never stick with it and all I know are about 3 songs and some blues riffs that you can put together randomly. I’ve always envied those with musical or artistic talent.

Anyway, tonight we focused on the basics – how to treat the handbells, the basic circular motion and wrist snap, and what have you. Even so, I didn’t feel like I was doing very well. I would be trying to ring both of my bells at the same time and would hear or feel them hitting separately.  Dulcie tries to treat this very seriously, for everyone’s benefit, and I hope I can get better in the next few weeks.

I had to call North Carolina as soon as I got home from church, and tell my sister-in-law what I had done.

“You’ll enjoy it,” she said.

“If I don’t,” I answered, “I’m blaming you.”

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my happy place

Here’s a little thought experiment to try to warm myself up. Feel free to come along as I try to escape the polar vortex.

The temperature is not in single digits, because it’s not January. It’s July, and I’m at Camp Cumberland Pines, volunteering with Summer Plus. We’ve just ended a good, satisfying day of working with the teenagers. My creative writing workshop is going well in the afternoons, and I’m having fun helping out in another workshop — let’s say, cooking — in the mornings.

I’m a co-pilot on one of the transportation routes, but not today — one of my fellow volunteers who hasn’t been involved in transportation wanted to get out into the county and see where the teens come from, so she offered to swap with me this afternoon. I watch the last of the vehicles pull out of the front entrance to Cumberland Pines. I slip on my backpack and begin walking across the big field from the Wingo Pavilion to the dining hall, beyond which lies Friends Cabin.

The warm sun feels wonderful. I’m wearing shorts and a tie-dyed t-shirt, and I throw on my Mountain T.O.P. ball cap to shade my face. The home repair volunteers have to wear long pants at the work site – it’s an insurance thing – but I can, and do, wear shorts almost all week. I usually arrive in camp wearing long pants, and sometimes I’ll put on long pants on Friday for our Summer Plus celebration, which the teens’ parents come for. But the rest of the time, I’m in shorts. I’m a volunteer, and Summer Plus is a good day’s work, but it’s also a form of vacation.

I walk past Guido. Guido is a tree located near the dining hall, with benches arranged around it in a circle. I have no idea why it’s called Guido. At this point, nobody else may know either.

One or two other volunteers who didn’t have to do transportation are in the lobby of Friends Cabin. We exchange pleasantries about how the day went. I stop by my room in Friends Cabin, take off my shoes and socks and put on flip-flops. I sit out on the deck for a few moments. I look over at Three Crosses, an outdoor worship area nearby, and down at the AIM pavilion. I decide to go in and take a shower. Most of the other Summer Plus volunteers are women, and most are on their transportation routes, so I have the men’s shower room all to myself. Later, about 5 or so, the home repair teams will start rolling into camp, and all three shower stalls will be busy at once, with people waiting their turn. But for now, it’s just me, and a hot shower feels good.

After showering and putting on clean clothes, I wander over to the dining hall — to use the wi-fi and to set one of the tables (I’m co-hosting a table for dinner tonight). As I finish putting out napkins and silverware, I hear a couple of cars driving back into camp. It’s too early for the home repair folks to be back, so I know it’s probably my fellow Summer Plus volunteers, probably some who were dropping off teens relatively near the camp. I wander back over to Friends Cabin.

I pick up the deck of cards on the table in the lobby. “Are you going to play ‘Screw The Dealer’ tonight?” I ask someone.

“Oh, yes. I can’t do any worse than I did last night.”

I walk over to the fridge, put 75 cents in the cash box, and pull out a Diet Coke. Then I think about it for a second, put the Diet Coke back, put 50 more cents in the cash box, and get an IBC black cherry instead. I’ve earned it.

I look at my “mailbox,” a black cylinder marked with my name sitting on the mailbox table. Some people have hand-made mailboxes they’ve been bringing to camp for years; others didn’t bring a mailbox and have brown paper lunch sacks with their name scrawled on them in magic marker. There’s a note of thanks and encouragement in my mailbox from one of my fellow volunteers. I realize I’ve been delinquent in my own note-writing and I sit down at the table, where there are little squares of paper and pens strewn about.

After writing a few notes and depositing them in the appropriate mailboxes, I wander back out to the deck. Dinner will come up at 6 p.m., and then sharing. Sharing is a chance to talk about the day, and if I get the chance I’ll have a moving story about something one of my creative writing kids said during my workshop. Worship will follow a few minutes after sharing breaks up. It will be brief and creative. By 8:45 or so, we’ll all be free for the evening, and that card game is likely to crank up.

Right now, though, I’m just sitting on the Friends Cabin deck, enjoying the warm weather and waiting for my friends to get back from their transportation routes and home repair sites.

God is good.

Do you feel warmer now?  If you’d like to make this trip for real, you can find out more here.

‘Starring’, not ‘with’

I have noticed something that I’m surprised no TV writers have picked up on.

There were several stories over the weekend about NBC’s first on-air promo for Jimmy Fallon’s version of “The Tonight Show.” It’s a classy, well-done promo, invoking the long history of the “Tonight Show” brand, and I was pleased to see that NBC didn’t just ignore Conan O’Brien’s brief tenure.

It wasn’t until today that I noticed something about the show’s new logo.

The full name of the program for most of the 60s, all of the 70s and 80s, and into the 90s was “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” When Jay Leno took over, it became “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” and I remember some commentary at the time that this was an appropriate change in terminology — no one would ever be the commanding star of late night the way that Johnny was. A few years ago, we had “The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien,” and then went back to “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.” Both of CBS’s late-night entries use “with” as well.

But — at least in that promo and the promotional art — the version of the show which will premiere next month will be “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.”

first-promo-for-the-tonight-show-starring-jimmy-fallon-new-era-begins

“Starring.”

I’m not saying it’s really all that big of a deal (and I’m eagerly looking forward to Fallon’s tenure, regardless), I’m just saying I’m surprised nobody’s noticed it.

best worst movie

Since re-activating Netflix, I’ve enjoyed several episodes of “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” and as a result of that Netflix recommended the documentary “Best Worst Movie,” which I’d read about before but never seen.

I highly recommend it.

It’s about a movie called “Troll 2,” regarded by some as the worst movie ever, which has – like, say, “Plan 9 From Outer Space” – become a cult hit, with people watching it because of its perfectly funny awfulness. Unlike “Plan 9,” however, “Troll 2” is recent enough that the actors and filmmakers are still around to be delighted and/or horrified by this turn of events.

The documentary tells their stories, particularly George Hardy – a dentist who tried out for the film as a lark while living in Utah and then later settled in Alabama, in a small town where no one had any idea of his cinematic past. The documentary begins by introducing Hardy and having his ex-wife, of all people, pronounce how universally-liked he is (including by her). He does enjoy attention, in a harmless way, and dresses as a roller-blading tooth fairy in each year’s Christmas parade. So he has the time of his life when “Troll 2” becomes a cult hit and he’s suddenly on the road appearing at screenings and signing autographs.

Less than enchanted — but still willing to cash in — is Claudio Fragrasso, director of “Troll 2.” He and his all-Italian crew shot in Utah with a script badly translated into English, and yet refused cast members’ suggestions for changes in the dialogue. Fragrasso continues to insist that this was a serious movie with serious themes and that he has a keen understanding of American culture, and he eventually becomes annoyed at his cast members appearing at screenings and playing along with the “worst movie” hype.

The documentary was directed by Michael Stephenson, now an adult but the child star of “Troll 2.”

While MST3K never got around to “Troll 2,” former MST3K host Mike Nelson has, through his current project “RiffTrax.” Instead of his usual partners Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett, he riffs the movie in the company of Rich Kyanka from somethingawful.com. Here’s the teaser trailer.

Now it looks like I’ll have to see “Troll 2,” with and/or without Mike Nelson’s commentary.

Mother superior

I posted a clip to Facebook of Audra McDonald singing “Maybe This Time” from “Cabaret” and mentioned how much I’d enjoyed her performance of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” in NBC’s recent “The Sound of Music.”

That reminded me of a story I’ve been meaning to tell. I saw a couple of people, the night of NBC’s live telecast or the next day, scoff about political correctness versus accuracy in the casting of Ms. McDonald, an African-American, as the Mother Superior. I had to laugh because I said the exact same thing – thirty years ago, in the early 1980s, as an ignorant know-it-all college student. I attended a performance of “The Sound of Music” on campus at ORU and wrote a report on it for some class or another, and I scoffed at the fact that an African-American woman had been cast as the Mother Superior. The professor circled my remark on the paper and called me out on my presumption. Did I have any actual information on the demographic profiles of religious orders in Europe in the 1930s? Or was I just shooting my mouth off? (She didn’t actually use those words.)

Guilty as charged.

A daily dose

We’re approaching the first of the year, so it’s time for me to encourage you to try out the Daily Audio Bible, which will of course start a new cycle on Jan. 1.

You may have used various Bible-in-a-year reading plans or listened to various audio Bible products. But DAB is something unique, and I think it’s worth checking out. It’s a daily podcast hosted by Brian Hardin, who lives in Spring Hill (although he seems to be on the road constantly with various speaking engagements). You can listen to it for free using podcast software like iTunes, at the dailyaudiobible.com website, or you can make a one-time purchase of a very inexpensive smartphone or tablet app.

Brian takes you through the entire Bible in a year (and actually takes you through Psalms and Proverbs more than once). Bible-on-CD products usually rely on people with deep, dramatic voices, but Brian’s reading style is warm and casual, and very listenable. Each day, there’s an Old Testament reading, a New Testament reading, a reading from Psalms and a reading from Proverbs. The reading itself takes maybe 15-20 minutes. Brian then usually briefly discusses one of the day’s passages, leads a prayer, talks about his upcoming schedule. The podcast is then closed out by playing various prayer requests (or messages in response to other people’s prayer requests) exactly as they were left on the ministry’s prayer hotline. You can decide how much of this you want to listen to; you can stop right after the reading, or right after Brian’s remarks and the prayer, or you can listen to the whole thing.

The podcast rotates through various Bible versions, changing to a different one each week. That probably helps keep them on the good side of the various rights holders (if they were to always use the same version, it might compete with that version’s audio Bible CDs, or what have you). A couple of years ago, when a special edition of the NIV was published using the DAB reading schedule, Brian proposed sticking to the NIV so that people could follow along. I would have liked that, if only because I don’t like a couple of the paraphrases that are in the DAB’s regular rotation. But a poll of the listeners revealed strong support for keeping the different-version-each-week policy.

DAB tries to encourage interaction and a community feel, although of course you don’t have to participate in any of that to listen to the podcast. There are various message boards at the web site, and for the past  year there were DAB “family gatherings” held in various cities where Brian was traveling.

DAB also has several other daily podcasts – there’s a version just for kids, a Proverbs-only podcast, and a number of foreign-language versions.

Forcing yourself to go through the entire Bible isn’t always easy. There are Old Testament passages that we like to conveniently ignore, and Brian (without getting too sectarian – this is a non-denominational podcast) sometimes tries to address dissonance between what’s being described in the Old Testament history books and what we believe about God as God is described in the New Testament. But it’s all the Bible, and I think it’s a healthy process to push through it and make yourself think about what you believe. A daily dose of the Bible is a healthy thing for Christians, and DAB is a friendly, even comforting, way to meet your recommended daily allowance.