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Slurp.

A while ago I discovered, and briefly wrote about, Robert Christgau and Carola Dibbell’s entertaining taster’s guide to the American beer market circa 1975.

I have been pretty much living on yogurt at lunchtimes for most of the year, and my fondness for the stuff goes back to childhood.

So I was even more delighted to find out that Christgau and Dibbell wrote a similar taster’s guide to American yogurts, having used a cross-country drive in the summer of 1973 for lactobacillic sampling purposes.

The piece is called “The Loving Spoonful;” it ran in the May 1974 issue of Oui magazine; and sure, I’ll give you a link.

In short, tart bursts, Christgau and Dibbell evaluate 37 different brands. It’s clear from their prose that they ate an awful lot of yogurt back then — and not just for testing purposes.

(I wonder if they still do. I also wonder if author George Szanto, whose homemade yogurt earned a B, still makes his own.)

This piece has affected my lunchtime eating habits in one major way. Ever since I saw its claim that blueberry is an especially difficult fruit to get right, I’ve been semi-obsessively eating blueberry yogurt, trying to decide if I agree. I think the world’s yogurt makers have taken giant steps in this regard since 1974.

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Speak your truth quietly and clearly.

This might maybe explain why I tend to write less and less.

I mentioned in February that I’d stuck my head out and attended weekly Quaker meeting for the first time.

Since then I’ve continued to go, just about every week, even while on vacation once.

I think it’s good for me; I think it’s gradually helping me become a better human being. I agree with the basic tenets of the faith. And I find myself enjoying my gradual integration into the local and global communities of the Society of Friends.

# # # # #

Traditional Quaker meetings are silent, unless someone in the meeting room feels a strong call to speak. This can happen six or seven times in a meeting, or it can happen not at all; there’s no knowing in advance.

At one point during Sunday’s meeting, an older man stood up and began to talk about things his parents had taught him. He said he wanted to read something that summed it up.

And then he launched into Desiderata.

The effect inside my head was the equivalent of pressing Play on a cassette tape. Pop-Culture Kurt — if you read this blog, you know him well — immediately took over with a recitation:

1920s poem by Max Ehrmann. Subsequently an unlikely 1971 hit single for Les Crane. Subject of an early-’70s poster craze in dorm rooms and teenage bedrooms. Sometimes incorrectly attributed as a 17th-century poem. Parodied by the National Lampoon on the single “Deteriorata,” which itself received some airplay on college and underground radio stations. The poem is sometimes mocked as the sort of easy-to-digest profundity that connects with a mass audience —

— and that was as far as I got before another Kurt (he doesn’t travel under an alias) slapped me upside the head.

This is not Saturday-night trivia at a bar, Other Kurt said. This is not about unpacking how much you know, or how much you think you know.

That guy over there has been in the world a long time. He’s summarizing things he’s seen and learned (more than you have, on both counts), and the words of “Desiderata” are the way he chooses to do it.

Quakers take speech at meeting very seriously, and this guy wouldn’t be standing up and reciting this poem if it didn’t stir something in his soul. How about you be less of a know-it-all, and less of a numbnuts, and just try to welcome and consider on face value what your fellow Friend is saying?

I chewed on that, in my silence, for quite a while.

# # # # #

I bring this up because it reminds me of a larger struggle I’ve had for some time now. I’ll label the two sides Creativity vs. Cleverness.

Creativity is the making of new things that bear my imprint. I view it as a positive, and I’ve always told myself it’s an important part of who I am.

I write stuff. I make music (or noise that sounds to me like music). I like to take pictures, in an untrained amateur way. I make up goofy sailor stories to put my kids to bed, or anyway I used to, when they were young and that was needed. I even try to wedge bits of creativity into my daily work when the lawyers and the engineers are looking the other way.

None of this is high art; I have always been careful not to overestimate its worth. But I bring it into the world from somewhere, and it comes into the world with some trace of me in it, and it might not exist in exactly the form it does if I hadn’t been there to make it real.

Creativity requires some minimal belief in oneself: If what you introduce to the world has value, then so must you.

Cleverness is sort of the negative track of that; it represents that faith blown up and swollen.

It’s smugness … overconfidence … an inflated sense of one’s own worth, and of the value of the things one does. It’s a surfeit of pride in the scope of one’s own knowledge, and in knowledge for knowledge’s sake.

(Superiority is part of it too. When I send an email with a task or request to someone at work, and I think, “That person’s gonna make God’s own hash of this, I just know it,” that’s a kind of cleverness too, because I’m rating myself as better than they are.)

# # # # #

I have always leaned toward cleverness, sometimes disappeared right down into it. It is a flaw in my personality I have only in recent years begun to perceive.

As I try to bring a greater quotient of humility and grace into my daily life, I am trying to embrace creativity and strip away cleverness.

The trouble is, I can’t find exactly where they intersect.

Where is the line between a well-informed, reasoned commenter and a know-it-all?

Similarly, where does a simple fondness for the easy entertainment of trivia curdle into I-know-something-you-don’t superiority? (I have wrestled with that before.)

Where’s the dividing line between making a firm point that sticks with the reader, and a point that just showboats one’s command of the language?

Where does a simply negative comment — an expression of dislike or disagreement — end, and smugness begin?

(I do not think a life of humility and grace forbids or excludes the expression of negative opinions. Some things in life deserve them. For instance, … but the little girls understand really is a lead turd of an album; I could phrase it more kindly, but that about sums up the nine yards of it right there.)

At what point does criticism to make an artistic point spill over into criticism for the purpose of superiority and self-satisfaction?  (If you said “about two sentences ago!,” you take home a prize, I suspect.)

I don’t know where any of this leads. It is an unexplored woods for me, and I’m mostly navigating it with my outstretched hands. I’m bumping into stuff, but I’m hoping the path out leads me to a place I feel better about.

What comes out of my brain, my mouth and my fingers when I get there remains to be seen, I guess.

Throw back the little ones.

Just for fun, I’m going to follow up tonight with my list of 10 least favorite Steely Dan tunes.

Now, the stuff at the bottom of Becker and Fagen’s barrel is actually pretty good. There are bands with gold records on the wall that never put together 10 songs this good or interesting.

But, something has to be at the bottom of the list. So here are my selections for the 10 worst, or least good, or most forgettable, or most disposable Steely Dan tunes, once again in chronological order.

Feel free to disagree.

1.”Kings.” From the first Dan album, Can’t Buy a Thrill, this is professionally crafted album filler and naught more. Possibly the least memorable song in the Dan’s classic catalog.

(Just to belabor the point: It’s not a bad song, until you think of all the others to which it’s being compared. Becker and Fagen’s oeuvre is packed full of songs that are loaded with creative lyrical, instrumental and melodic twists. Just about every song has a moment, or a couple of moments, that stick in the mind. This one really doesn’t.)

2. “King of the World.” A lot of the best Steely Dan songs leave something to the imagination … they leave you wondering who’s talking, or who they’re talking to, or what about, or sometimes all three at once.

“King of the World” falls short on that score. It never specifically says “post-nuclear devastation,” but you don’t have to connect more than three dots to get there.

Also, while B&F were masters of evoking a scene with a well-chosen detail, they fall short here. “No marigolds in the promised land” is not particularly more evocative than “No kosher dills in the promised land,” and a whole lot less funny.

3.”Night By Night.” This was the last song added to the list, and the hardest choice to make. Get eight or nine songs into a “worst of Steely Dan” list and you’re cutting into muscle — there are no longer any truly subpar or forgettable candidates.

(For what it’s worth, other candidates for this spot included “I Got The News,” “The Caves of Altamira” and “Throw Back The Little Ones” — perfectly likeable toons all, just a little less momentous or earthshaking or masterful than the songs that surrounded them.)

This one’s pleasant, reasonably catchy, but just a little lyrically overblown. The idea of “I’m cashing in this ten-cent life / For another one” is not dissimilar to what the narrator of “Deacon Blues” wants to do … but Mr. Blues expresses it so much more touchingly, and is so much more likeable for his comparative weakness.

Some people, like John Cazale and Donald Fagen, are better cast as schnooks than strongmen.

4. “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo.” I admire Duke Ellington, and like some of his music very much. I like the idea that Becker and Fagen would cover Duke Ellington as casually as their peers covered Bob Dylan. I still don’t enjoy listening to this song very much, and I think that this was better in concept than execution.

5. “Through With Buzz.” The nadir of Seventies Dan; a pure toss-off from start to finish. The string arrangement is mildly funny, and the fact that they saw fit to lavish a string arrangement on this ninety-second non-song is kinda droll also. But that’s about all the good news to be had here.

6. “With A Gun.” Yes, mystery is an essential quality in Steely Dan’s best work, and once again there’s not enough of it here.

I also find the country flavor a little too much to take; I listen to B&F for a lot of things, but gunsmoke and sawdust ain’t among them.

7. “Monkey In Your Soul.” No, I don’t like Pretzel Logic very much; why do you ask?

This would be a great little song, or perfectly acceptable anyway, except for that loathsome fuzz bass. Stinks up the entire song.

Not sure what they were thinking … but they made a couple of conspicuously bad decisions on this album, and that was among ’em.

 

8. “Everything You Did.” Turn up the Eagles / The neighbors are listening”
is a wonderful and justly celebrated line … and Fagen’s portrayal of a cuckold blinded by his own shallowness and stupidity works well enough … and OK, Larry Carlton turns in another damned impressive bit of fancy steppin’ during the guitar solo … but by and large I find this repetitive.

And — while this speaks more to the trash culture that’s accumulated in my brain than anything else — the ending reminds me of the scene in ‘Salem’s Lot in which one of the male characters, having humiliated his wife’s lover at gunpoint, heads into the bedroom for the first round of his prolonged and nightly revenge.

I’m not sure Fagen’s narrator is similarly capable of getting what he wants by force — one wonders, by the end, whether his paramour is even still listening — but the nature of his sexual demand is still not a place I feel like going.

9. “My Rival.” This probably made Becker and Fagen laugh but it’s a tootling non-joke to me. This one’s right up there with “Kings” atop the list of Steely Dan Songs You’re Most Likely To Forget Exist.

10. “Third World Man.” In which the Gaucho album, which began with a tremendous first side, putters out in a big slow rainy turgid endless puddle of Fender Rhodes.

B&F dipping into foreign tongues to find something that rhymes with “rondo” is marginally interesting … but it was so much more impressive when they found their golden tickets in English. (Have you ever seen a squonk’s tears?)

I hear you are singing a song of the past.

Walter Becker wouldn’t have cared about my 10 favorite Steely Dan songs, and most likely you don’t either.

But it’s raining too hard to walk, and I don’t wanna think about work, so here ya go, in no order but chronological.

Feel free to agree or disagree in the comments …

1. “Dirty Work.” Steely Dan fans love Becker and Fagen’s quirkiness — their insistence on wedging jazz chords into pop songs, their frequent name-drops of specific (if sometimes imaginary) places and people, and like that.

I go for that too. But I also think 1972, pound for pound, was the best year of the Seventies for Top 40 music; and I love the fact that these two weirdos were able to create songs that walked right onto the mass airwaves and held their own. Becker and Fagen would have plenty of time to get weird — and they would take it — but Radio-Friendly Dan is a distinctly winsome creature of its own.

“Dirty Work” wasn’t one of the two singles from Can’t Buy A Thrill, but I’ve heard it on the radio a bunch of times and it sure sounds fantastic, starting with that flare of Hammond organ that makes me sit upright and pay attention. And just try not to sing along (in your head, if nowhere else) with that simplest of choruses.

2. “Razor Boy.” I wrote about this mournful little cha-cha once, several years ago, and everything there is still true. Ray Brown’s upright bass meets Skunk Baxter’s pedal steel guitar and it works wonderfully. The chorus is at once sad and soaring.

3. “Your Gold Teeth.” In which Becker and Fagen match angular licks to a hard-boiled Dashiell Hammett sort of lyric, over another uncategorizable Latin groove. I suppose the long solo section in the middle is awfully rockish, but I do enjoy hearing Fagen and Baxter stretch out. Fragments of the lyric from this one often occur to me at totally random moments (usually it’s “Got a feeling I been here before / Won’t you let me help you find the door?”)

4. “Any Major Dude Will Tell You.” From my least favorite of the classic Dan LPs, Pretzel Logic. (You will eventually note the absence of Becker and Fagen’s reunion albums from this list; I’ve just never gotten into them like I did the Seventies stuff.)

This one is uncharacteristically gentle and reassuring, like a pat on the back, and as a much younger lad I once derived reassurance from it for a brief period.

(Of course, knowing Becker and Fagen, they probably wrote this lyric in the voice of one junkie singing to another, or something perverse like that. But on its surface, at least, it is unique in the Seventies Dan catalog, and all the more charming for it.)

5. “Bad Sneakers.” From my favorite of the classic Dan LPs, 1975’s Katy Lied, which features the Dan’s most consistently successful marriage of subterranean lyrical darkness with the surface charms of jazz and pop.

The swelling up of piano and melody on the chorus here — “Bad sneakers and a pina colada, my friend / Stompin’ on the avenue by Radio City” — shines like a Manhattan marquee; it’s Cole Porter for the age of ‘ludes and paranoia. Also a nifty guitar solo (as if that need be specified in a Steely Dan review). And is that another electric sitar on the intro?

6. “Chain Lightning.” The single baddest, tightest, most laid-back, in-the-pocket shuffle of the Seventies, which is saying a mouthful.

And while I’ve always thought of Rick Derringer as an arena-rock mope — the sort of gent perfectly suited to the 11 a.m. slot at Cal Jam — he delivers the goods in a big way here. Dig the chord-clang at 1:25; or the way he dances down into the muck at the bottom of the neck and then skips up again; or the snotty Jeff Beck-ish pick-flick at 1:41.

Not gonna write about the rest of the songs until I listen to this one again.

7. “Sign In Stranger.” From the “Dirty Work”/”Razor Boy” school of mournfulisms, I guess, comes this downbeat reggae dirge (and how often do you get to write “reggae dirge”?) about a future Wild West in which you can dodge your past misdeeds just by jumping from planet to planet.

Fagen’s narrator sounds like a pitchman preying upon the disaffected and spat-out, offering promises of easy redemption in the kinds of terms you’d hear on late-night infomercials (“Do you have a dark spot on your past? / Leave it to my man, he’ll fix it fast”) along with appeals to his prospective clients’ less savory desires (“Or maybe you would like to see the show / You’ll enjoy the Cafe d’Escargot.”)

The second verse does kinda go on and on, and the bridge ain’t B&F’s finest, but I like it anyway. And the big-brass instrumental coda rises up out of nowhere to suggest a happy ending, or at least a dead-end paved in gold.

8. “Aja.” A stone beautiful piece of music; the usual quotient of abstruse-but-memorable lyrics, with a gently Eastern tinge; and a couple of marvelous individual performances, most notably by Steve Gadd on drums. This glows like a sapphire.

9. “Deacon Blues.” The tale of a loser who’s decided he’s tired of watching the victors write history.

I find this more mournful than hopeful — do you really think the narrator’s going to find what he imagines when he crosses that fine line? — but brilliantly affecting in any case.

10. “Babylon Sisters.” Another flavor of shuffle here (it’s the wonderful Bernard Purdie on drums, IIRC) — polished and malevolent, with a Rhodes navigating a dark, snaky series of changes on top.

The mood eventually brightens, a little, but the whole thing sounds driven by energies, desires and situations that are untenable over the long term — lavish parties, younger women, general debauchery. Turn this one into a screenplay, and the narrator’s floating in a pool at the end.

(The Santa Ana winds are the perfect natural phenomenon to include here … and what is that weird sax-or-voice thing that rises up like a cobra at 3:21?)

So why is this tawdry offering one of my 10 favorite Steely Dan songs? Because, having spent the Seventies combining sunny exteriors with questionable interiors, Becker and Fagen had come pretty close to perfecting it at this point. If “Aja” shines like a sapphire, “Babylon Sisters” gleams like gunmetal.

A man of science.

Dr. Lester Hankin was on the goddamned case, and it’s about time I stopped making fun of him.

You may recognize Hankin’s name from the three posts immediately preceding this one, which involve food analysis reports done by the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

Those reports don’t make for the most engaging reading, and they perhaps show Hankin and his fellow researchers in an absurd light.

After reading, one pictures them as a bunch of guys in lab coats, squinting over columns of numbers from fat-content analyses of Stew Leonard’s egg nog or Heluva Good clam dip, and in the end not saying much of relevance to the man on the street.

Still, I acknowledge the usefulness of their work. Food safety regs don’t magically enforce themselves, and somebody ought to check to see whether “diet” yogurt really comes out of the packaging plant any different from the regular stuff.

(I’m imagining a single tap — similar to that in the Duff Beer factory — belching out “regular” and “diet” yogurt, with the only difference being the label.)

Dr. Hankin — who only passed away about three months ago — also sounds like an interesting guy. His professional credits include the development of a new test for lead poisoning in children.

And outside work, he served on the board of directors of the Greater New Haven United Way; as president of both the ARC of Connecticut and the ARC of Greater New Haven; and on several committees in and around the town of Hamden, Connecticut.

So I’ll hoist my next spoonful of yogurt (Chobani Greek-style blackberry) in Dr. Hankin’s general direction, while hoping that some equivalent of his in modern-day Pennsylvania is testing the manufacturer’s quality control as intently as he did.

Archive.org makes quite a few of Dr. Hankin’s old reports available online. If you liked the last three posts, you might also enjoy these:

Analysis of Honey,” March 1987. In which the doctor and his team test 58 honey samples for residual pesticide, microbes, and ash or other “inorganic constituents.”

Fruit Content of Breakfast Cereals,” June 1982. What percentage of raisin bran actually consists of raisins? (For that matter, what about banana frosted flakes’ percentage of actual banana?) I found this report delightful simply because it reminded me of Kellogg’s Raisins, Rice & Rye, a cereal I remember liking back in the day.

Quality of Butter and Blends of Butter and Oleomargarine,” July 1983. I spent a week in July 1983 visiting my grandparents in Stamford by myself. I’m sure there was butter on the table … and thanks to Dr. Hankin, I can now be sure that it was OK to eat.

Analysis of Sizes in Packaged Prunes,” March 1991. Inspired by a complaint from an actual consumer who expected medium prunes in her box, but received small instead. How much more responsive to the man on the street could the Agricultural Experiment Station possibly get?

(Of course, “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” was supposedly based on actual events too, so you can’t trust everything you read. But still.)

Quality of Aspirin,” August 1985. When you get a headache, you sure as heck want your aspirin to be high-quality and the correct dosage, right? If not, you’d just seek relief in beer instead. Speaking of which …

Analysis of Beer and Wine Coolers for Alcohol 1988-1990.” Our man and his team tested 149 beers. One wonders whether they had to buy six-packs of all those brews, and if so, where the other five went.

This test had a real-world application: Since alcohol content was one of the factors used by Connecticut to levy taxes, an accurate measurement was important.

It’s interesting to see early microbrews getting included here — brands like Brooklyn, Catamount, Harpoon and New Amsterdam. What with the recent explosion of microbrewing, a statewide test like this today would be a real headache to run.

(You’d sure need a good aspirin afterward. I hope my aspirin is high quality and the correct dosage — hey, thanks, Dr. Hankin!)

Quality of Tofu and Other Soy Products,” March 1983. This one’s a little tough, as there are no state regs (or weren’t then) for tofu products, but Dr. Hankin manages to incorporate some of the test results from his other recent publications, including chip dips.

Quality of Tomato Paste, Sauce, Puree and Catsup,” January 1986. Dr. Hankin manages to work the phrase “love apples” into his very first sentence; surely he granted himself a good chuckle.

Fat Content of Ground Beef,” November 1983. Some genuinely interesting results here, the kind that make headlines — like the Waldbaum’s market in Enfield, which was selling “13% fat” ground sirloin with 23% fat, or the Shop Rite in Norwich, selling “30% fat” ground beef with 17.6% fat. How do you screw up that far in either direction? That much error would be visible to a smart shopper. (A 1991 update to this study is also online.)

Amount of Fish and Shrimp Found in Frozen Breaded Products,” January 1991. Is the noble, mackintosh-wearing fisherman on the frozen-food package shorting you? In 1991 he might have been: All eight samples of breaded shrimp fell well short of federal requirements for actual shrimp content.

Analysis of Nutrients in Canned Baked Beans and Chili,” October 1990. The Cincinnati Reds were in the World Series that month, which might have moved a few more cans of prepared chili off of store shelves. The docs at the testing station were on the case, testing the validity of nutritional info on canned beans and chili.

Quality of Delicatessen Meats,” September 1984. In which Doc Hankin sets off into the murky world of wursts, loafs, head cheeses, blood sausages, and something called Adolf’s Minced Delight. No real smoking guns are found, but the nutritional breakdowns are enough to steer you toward tofu, if you weren’t there already.

(Hey, I wonder what the doctor liked to eat, and whether any of his work ever put him off any of his favorites?)

Analysis of Soy Sauce,” January 1992.  Thirty-eight soy sauces are tested for salt, sodium, MSG and other substances of importance to consumers. (I don’t know how long it would take me today to find 38 different varieties of soy sauce; Dr. Hankin and his associates must have combed the state to put this together.)

Quality of Crackers,” May 1982. In which snack crackers, saltines, animal crackers and graham crackers go under the microscope.

Quality of Reconstituted Chilled Orange Juice,” April 1982. As a recovering orange juice addict, I found this one interesting. I had no idea the amount of vitamin C in orange juice varies from season to season, for instance.

Pesticides in Groundwater in Connecticut,” October 1986. While southern Connecticut was exulting in the Mets’ victory and northern Connecticut was feeling the pain of the Red Sox’s defeat, Dr. Hankin and his colleagues were tackling a subject of undeniable importance. Good news: Most samples came back clean. Less-good news: One pesticide was lingering longer in nature than it was in lab samples. Wonder if it’s still in the water there?

Analysis of Gas Line Antifreeze, Windshield Washer Fluid, and Ethylene Glycol Antifreeze,” February 1986. A few dodgy results among the gas-line antifreezes and windshield washer fluids — but, hopefully, nothing to surprise or inconvenience the hundreds of thousands of people who were presumably in active use of those products in February 1986.

Now this is where stuff gets real.

Nine Choice Passages From
“Quality of Yogurt: A Cooperative Study by the Connecticut Department of Agriculture and the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station”
By Lester Hankin and Donald Shields
Published August 1980, New Haven, Connecticut

  1. “Yogurt has been known from the days of Abraham and Genghis Khan (6) to the present.”
  2. “From 1970 to 1978 yogurt sales increased threefold.”
  3. “Samples were placed in ice for transport to the laboratory, and frozen yogurt was kept frozen.”
  4. “The difference in calories between regular and diet or lowfat yogurt was only about 8%.”
  5.  “The most fat found was in the Tuscan chocolate-covered yogurt, probably from the chocolate.”
  6. “There will not be a simple linear relationship between pH and titratable acidity because the amount of nonfat dry milk added varies among products and brands.”
  7.  “SUNDAE contains fruit on the bottom of the container overlain with plain yogurt.”
  8. “Acidified potato dextrose agar (Difco, Detroit, MI) was used for determining the number of yeasts and molds and Violet Red Bile agar (Difco) for assaying the numbers of coliform bacteria.”
  9. “The strawberry yogurts generally contained more additives than did the plain yogurts.”

 

yogurt.jpg

Return of the son of my grandparents’ taxes paid for this.

Nine Choice Passages From
Quality of Chip Dips: A Cooperative Study by the Connecticut Department of Agriculture and the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station
by Lester Hankin, Donald Shields and J. Gordon Hanna
Published April 1981, New Haven, Connecticut

1. “For those who do not wish to prepare their own dips, a wide variety of flavored chip dips are sold from refrigerated cases at food stores.”

2. “Onions, chives, clams, bacon, horseradish, blue cheese and more exotic materials are added for flavoring.”

3. “We did not attempt to collect every flavor made by each manufacturer; instead, we obtained a random selection from each manufacturer.”

4. “Interestingly, four of the dairy dip labels declared vegetable oil in addition to milk fat (samples 5, 9, 11, 17).”

5. “The 100 molds per gram in sample 14 are not significant since this is a blue cheese dip and live organisms could have been used to help develop the blue cheese flavor.”

6. “The number of days from purchase to last day of sale stamped on the carton ranged from 2 to 187 days.”

7. “One cream cheese spread, (sample 42), was extremely tart.”

8. “All samples were of satisfactory flavor when purchased.”

9. “Requests for additional copies should be addressed to Publications, The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, P.O. Box 1106, New Haven, CT 06504.”

qualityofchipdips