Saturday, November 26, 2005
The day after Thanksgiving (4th Thursday in November), is called *Black Friday*, by the retailers and advertisers. The reason is simple; this is the day the retail stores get their annual sales figures back into the black, following disappointing summer sales. Quite why they are disappointing you would need to ask them, as it happens every year and you would think by now that the disappointment was more, er, expected!
Anyway … Thanksgiving is a wonderful occasion. It is, more-so even than Christmas, a day when families come together to give thanks. I wrote about this last year, and this year was every bit as delightful … as was the sweet potato casserole. This outpouring of goodwill appears to affect some Americans so much that they feel the need to atone the following day. Thus Black Friday is also the day when the feral American descends on the stores, to mix with decent folk whose only crime is to be so well organised they had the stores, and relevant target purchases, written on *easy to use in the crush* index cards. Next year, she needs to get them laminated, and maybe she (Jennifer) won’t miss the biggest bargain she was after. I shall make a special Banoffee Pie to commiserate … but I digress.
The TV and papers have been full of ads for about 2 weeks now, so I decided to go along to see what all the fuss was about. The mailbox has been full of ads too ….. I do hope the USPS charges very highly for stuffing our mailbox full of un-solicited, hardcopy spam, but I doubt it. Anything to make a buck, and who cares about the trees?
The teensiest fly in this ointment, is the minor detail of the sale starting at 5 am. There doesn’t seem to be much point arriving later than this, so 5 it is … ugh! The other small issue is one of having no money …. Hehe …. Oh well! So 4.45 am sees me driving along Admiral, towards Thomas’s favourite store, the Walmart at Admiral and Memorial. I am mindful that the bars haven’t been closed long, so I drive carefully and am rewarded when the car behind me, which passes just after the Mingo traffic circle, is a Police Cruiser. My smug feeling of satisfaction changes abrubtly to a modicum of *piqued interest*, as the cruiser turns into the Walmart parking lot in front of me. As I turn in, I realise something deeply troubling is afoot ….. the danged parking lot is full. FULL I tell ya, at 5 in the bloody morning!!!
So, I park somewhere in the next County, and begin the hike towards the store. I cast the odd fearful glance around as I go. This is not the crime free neighbourhood we would like it to be, and elderly men on their own, in the dark, are a tad vulnerable. As it happens, I see a teen *Hoodie* by the front entrance ….. but it turns out he is just waiting for his Mum … awwwwww.
Did I tell you the parking lot was full?
I enter, and pick up a cart. Here I need to apologise to my friends and family back home. I find myself increasingly using American terms like *cart* … A cart is a shopping trolley, ok? At least I said *Mum* and not *Mom*. So I take my cart and head off left up past the toothpaste and feminine products whose purpose I would rather not have described to me, thank you very much. As I walk up the aisle I can see a crowd gathered. At first the noise is subdued, kind of like a gentle background murmur, but it wasn’t to last. As I approach, the volume increases through swarm of angry bees an on to Boeing 747 at full throttle, with a hole in the exhaust (muffler). A crowd of about a hundred women, and two guys like me conducting a social experiment, are milling around a stack of Care Bears, shrouded in plastic wrap and being guarded by a Walmart employee wielding a craft knife. I suspect the craft knife is to be used to remove the plastic wrap, but I caught her eye and decided not to put this theory to the test. It was 4.55 am, and the crowed was baying for a countdown. The craft knife girl was determined to hang on until 5, but, knife or no knife, she was risking life and limb for a bunch of $5 soft toys. She did the math and cut the wrap.
Now I can tell you, that I have a watch that knows what time it is, to one second in ten million years. It was 4.58 am, so the sale started early!
Oh boy did it start. The shoppers (loose description .. imagine a herd of wildebeest that just caught wind of a lion, and you’ll be close), quite literally *devoured* the Care Bears. Boxes of product went flying as those assembled displayed a level of assertiveness that was out of all proportion. I got three …. Dunno where the girl with the craft knife went, I guess she was just trampled. So. I actually did want one of these bears for Natalie, for Christmas. Then I figured Jordan would love one too. The third was me being mean ….. I took three so that those fighting over soft toys would have one less to take, then, later, I could replace one on the stack to give a other shoppers a chance. I am a bit mean at times, and I giggled all the way around the store at the thought. Yeah, I know …. Bite me!
Onwards, ever onwards. The delight that was the scrum for the Care Bears was behind me, and I went off searching for that other *must have*. This was a radio-controlled 1.10th scale Hummer for Michael. These were being advertised for $20, and he would just adore one. Clearly the Care Bears were being bought, in the main, by women, who, for some reason had turned from normally mild-mannered and pleasant, to Linda Blair for the morning. The men were buying the radio-controlled cars, consequently the neat stack was unruffled, and I could chose at my leisure. I chose a big yellow one, and I can’t wait to see his face.
Between the Care Bears and the main toy department I could glance over to the Electronics section. OMIDOG !!! It was like New Orleans after the storm …. Not the flood, we are in desperate need of rain, but the sight of about 300 people, mainly young men, carrying TVs out of the store. I hope they paid for them, they really don’t want to run into the girl with the craft knife or that little old lady who sits by the door saying *goodbye* …. She scares the crap outa me for some reason.
As I write this, I can smell smoke, and Jodie just appeared to tell me she is NOT burning dinner, but that some fat I spilled is burning off the hob …. My fault again, but I am relaxed about it because we are having Chocolate Malts shortly. The parking lot was full, did I mention that?
I am going nowhere near the Electronics section. In any event, Jennifer has the Harry Potter movie we need on one of her cards, so that must be a given. I do have to kinda skirt the general area though, to get to the milk and creamer required to make my life *liveable* when I get home. The crush down this aisle is horrendous. It’s about 25 yards to the other side, but is moving very slowly. As I make my way down, I am being *assaulted* from behind by a cart. It’s not quite *Trolley Rage*, but annoying anyhow. I turn to find the driver of the said cart, banging in to me while looking left, right, anywhere but where she is going. “Excuse me Madam”, I politely inquire, “But do you think you are likely to get out of here more quickly by repeatedly ramming your cart into my Achilles tendons?”. She was pissed (angry) I could tell, but she muttered sorry and suddenly decided there was somewhere off to the left she needed to be, and disappeared.
I was home by 5.30 am. Jodie had told me “I will be asleep when you get home. Please don’t be funny and make me laugh, it wakes me up”. But I had to tell her the parking lot was full (Have I mentioned that?) … She promises to forgive me by New Year.
A little later that day, Jodie and I popped into Walmart in Okmulgee. The parking lot was civilised, and orderly with lots of space. The store was moderately busy, but no one banged into my ankles. On the other hand, there was not a single Care Bear to be seen!
George, thanks for all you gave me and so many millions.
For those who din't know him; he was our Babe Ruth!
Friday, November 18, 2005
A case in point was my recent post about High School Football. One of Jodie's friends reacted to that post by commenting on how strange it felt to see something that was simply an accepted part of her life being viewed by someone from outside.
Foremost among the new experiences has to be local food.
I could, and one day probably will, go on at length about the food I have tried in the USA. But I just want here to mention one thing ...... Chocolate Malt.
You could see this ...... thing ..... as a milkshake. Oh no! Revisit that. A well made chocolate malt is an *experience*, not simply a drink.
Many of the fast food outlets here have this on the menu. Many have it, very few appear to know how to make it well. One outlet that does is Braums. Braums also knows how to make decent burgers and fries, what they lack is any sense of urgency!
So, having explored the genre, here is my idea of a Chocolate Malt:
4 Scoops good vanilla ice-cream
3 Tbsp Malt Powder
4 Tbsp Chocolate Sauce (I use Hersheys)
1 tsp Vanilla Extract
1 Cup Milk
Mix the whole lot in a blender. Whizz until smooth and a decent amount of froth is on top. Serve in a well-chilled glass.
Of prime importance here is that you consume this drink well away from any children in the house. In this house that especially means *any under the age of three*. If you don't, you will have to waste a good deal by giving them some of it. Nothing short of scandalous!
Tuesday, November 08, 2005
While we are on the subject of alcohol, and anomolies, here is one:
Homebrewing beer in Oklahoma is illegal. OK is one of the few remaining states yet to incorporate Federal law into State legislation. This means that, according to the relevant law, the brewing of wine or mead is permitted, but not the brewing of beer. In fact the statute expressly forbids the production of any alcoholic beverage not expressly allowed for in the law. The Federal position (now adopted by most states) permits the brewing of up to 100 gallons of beer per adult in the household. This is for home consumption by friends and family, and, I think, you can give it as a gift. The department that regulates these matters has stated it has no intention of attempting ever to enforce this law.
So if anyone asks, we make Beer Wine, ok?
For those who don't know, the US history of alcohol generally, is a pretty chequered one. The effects of Prohibition are still evident all over the place, and nowhere moreso than here.
At risk of serious trouble, I shall mention, very quietly, religion. Some of the Baptists in this state (the Buckle on the Bible Belt), believe that the Communion Wine of the Christian world, which represents the blood of Christ was, in fact, unfermented grape juice! What is interesting about this story, which appears, at first sight to be apropos of absolutely nothing at all, is that this interpretation is new. It is not mentioned in the bible, and was never mentioned by the Southern Baptist Churches until around the time of Prohibition.
Prohibition was bad law. There is no doubt about this, and it was rightly repealed. I do find it a little curious tho, that, at the same time as referring to the laws of God, as determined in the Old Testament, we are also told that the Church's response to being denied their Communion Wine is, in some way an indication now that ALL alcohol should be avoided. The *turning of water into wine* parable must be a little ... ahem ... inconvenient!
Anyway .... homebrew.
We do it, allthough if anyone asks, Jodie does it!
We were due to *do it* last Saturday. We had the ingredients and, for the first time *Stateside*, I was going to attempt an All-Grain brew. We specifically chose a brew designed to be the all-grain version of the partial mash recipe we tried last time. The end result of the last batch was great, and this one ought to turn out a little more complex, but essentially the same. If it doesn't, either the technique isn't working well, or the recipe is formulated wrongly. We shall see.
The last couple of weeks have been spent trying to convert a 5 gallon Rubbermaid drinks cooler into a mash tun. You knew we were close to achieving this when the last couple of trips to Home Depot cost under about $3 a time. I have been trying to get a cooler for weeks, and was determined to find one for $10. Just when I had resigned myself to spending $20 at Target, I found one, brand spanking new, at the local flea-market ... it seemed somehow, providential. So, various plumbing fittings later, I had replaced the tap with a ball-valve and fitted a mesh-screen on the inside. In the end, the screen failed .... more later!
Our friend Rick was keen to see how it all came together, so brewing was fixed for 12 noon last Saturday.
We ran a little late. Rick arrived at about 12.30, just in time to consume a large, and very welcome, fried breakfast, but the fateful hour couldn't be put off.
My brewing equipment is an odd collection of stuff put together with no money, but lots of imagination. I have two 100 cup West Bend coffee percolators each capable of heating 4 gallons of water to 180F. They came from Jodie's sister's house. They had been left in the garage by the previous owner along with a bunch of stuff that made the place look like a *meth lab*. Anyway, the relevant authorities declared it safe and I inherited these two machines, both brand new and unused. At my best I can't drink that much coffee, so we will use them as HLTs (Hot Liquor Tanks). Also from the same source is a borrowed turkey fryer. The last batch required only a three gallon boil. We can do this in the kitchen, but this time I wanted to boil six gallons, and the 54k btu burner is ideal.
Add this lot to the previous equipment for making *partial mash* brews, and we have what is needed to brew *all-grain*.
All went well until the sparge (rinsing the sugar from the grain). The strike water temp hadn't quite been sufficient for 154F, but future batches will be easier. Two quarts of boiling water added gave a mash for 45 mins at 152F, and I could live with that. Incidentally, at the end of the mash, the temp had held at 152F .... well done Rubbermaid!
The first few quarts were returned to the tun, and then the worst happened .... it stuck and no amount of *jiggling* was gonna make that wort flow again. After a few minutes swearing and poking around, I dumped the entire mash into the handily placed bottling bucket, and removed the completely collapsed mesh screen. I poked around the kitchen for something to use, and found one of those loose-mesh pan plastic scrubbers. Jamming this around the outlet, we dumped the mash back into the tun and proceeded to sparge. I was not hopeful, but it worked.
The rest of the process went to plan, but I was worried about the extraction we had achieved with our, less than textbook, method! Still, the colour in the boil kettle was good, and it smelled great.
At this point (just before the boil) I wondered was the specific gravity was going to be, so I measured it. This was a pretty stupid thing to do or, if not stupid, then at least pointless at this point however .... 1022 .... you are kidding me right? Jeez! ... even BudMillCoors starts out better than that! It was probably one of the lowest moments of my brewing career.
Jodie was serene, Rick was still eating breakfast .... so ... I engaged my brain.
Hang on .... there is over six gallons in the kettle, and it's very hot. Quick check with brewing software suggested that cooled, and reduce to five gallons, we might be ok (it suggested 1048, but I didn't put too much store by this).
I need a wort chiller. Four bags of ice in the bathtub cooled the kettle to 75F in 30 mins. That's pretty good, but ice isn't cheap, and it's not convenient either. The rest went to plan, and at around five o'clock just shy of five gallons of wort was in the fermentor, pitched with Wyeast 1968 at 75F, and at an original gravity of 1052. The target OG in the recipe is 1051.
As I type this, it has just been moved into a glass secondary and is in my brewing fridge at 65F. The specific gravity is 1012.
And hey Jodie .... As you will read this before you get home tonight. It tastes great!
The alcohol laws here are, to say the least, confusing; and lead to strange anomolies.
In Oklahoma, outwith liquor stores, beer can only be a maximum of 3.2% ABV (alcohol by volume). Liquor stores may sell beer of any strength they want, but if the ABV exceeds 3.2%, they have to sell it at *room temperature*. Nowhere, however, am I able to find a definition of *room temperature*. References in the laws to *not chilled* exist, but everywhere here is chilled most of the year, air conditioning sees to that. So, either that *chilling* is unlawful, or the law is so badly framed it's virtually un-enforceable.
Notwithstanding any concerns about refridgeration, the big three brewers here (Budweiser, Miller and Coors), all brew a special batch for distribution in Oklahoma and, I think, one other State. Their normal brew, tasteless thought it might be, still has a decent amount of alcohol (around 5%), but here it is 3.2%. Due to crazy distribution arrangements, the full strength product is not even available in liquor stores ..... you can get any number of micro-brews, or imported beers, but if you want BMC you have to go to Arkansas, or Texas ......
I'll pause for a moment to explain *tasteless*.
This is not meant to be a cheap shot at BMC beers, although I believe they deserve it, but a simple question about how the big brewers view their target customer base. Quite simply, they ALL TASTE THE SAME !!! Yes they do! Quit arguing. And the silly people who say they prefer one over the other (and thus pretend to know something about beer) simply demonstrate the fact that they know very little about beer!
I wouldn't mind, but the big companies have a vast depth of experience in brewing, employ some of the most skilled brewers and have access to equipment most breweries can only dream of. So why do they do it? Simple. I'll tell you .....
They do it because the marketeers and accountants run the brewery, and not the brewers. They do not set out to brew beer that will please most of their customers, they brew so as to offend the fewest! They all do it, and the result is that they are all brewing beer designed to be served so damned cold, and so lack definable character, that even if there were any differences between them (and there aren't), then you wouldn't be able to tell.
Did the Americans learn nothing from the UK in the seventies?
Our breweries tried that approach. It didn't work. CAMRA was born, and so began one of the most successful consumer pressure groups in UK history. They managed to persuade the major brewers that they would broaden their appeal, and please their customers by continuing to give them beer that was the envy of the world. They have largely remained true to this principle ever since. Sure the major brewers produce pretty cheap and cheerful *session* beers, but they also offer a range of high quality products that the US major brewers don't even come close to.
To be fair, when we are at our local Karaoke Bar, we drink Michelob Amberbok. This is a dark lager brewed by Budweiser, and it's not bad. It's not that good either, and Jodie has recently been heard to mutter something about supplying our homebrew to the bar ....
It's possible that the BMC group of brewers have it right. There are plenty of folk around here who actually LIKE their BudMillCoor beers.
Education of our friends continues. It may take some time.