Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Summer Innanen's "Rock Your Body" program for women

I've gone on (and on and on) on this blog about how the key to happiness is, first and foremost, fixing your head. Meditation, mindfulness, etc.

Your attitude -- and corresponding mental approach to whatever the "problem" is -- is nearly everything. And that rule applies to finding the critical answer to the question, "How should I eat?"

Along comes Summer Innanen's Rock Your Body program for women who are struggling with what seems like a never-ending rollercoaster of food/body-comp/weight/etc. issues.

Every now and then I get asked by someone to promote a product. I almost always pass on the opportunity, but this one seemed a little different to me. Why?

1. I wouldn't promote something if I weren't positive that it's a good thing. I first ran into Summer via Melissa Joulwan. Like Melissa, Summer has her approach to fitness and health firmly planted in the no-dieting/healthy-attitude camp. She's one of those rare people (like Mel Joulwan) whose blog and Facebook posts almost always get a "Hell yeah!" from me as I sit at my keyboard. (And often you'll find me reposting Summer's stuff on my Facebook page). She's cool, smart and isn't going to send you into a wacky gimmick-filled freak scene of dieting nonsense.

2. This program focuses on a woman's attitude toward health and fitness, first and foremost. One of the things I learned early on in my blogging adventure is that, churning in their brains, women have food/exercise issues that most men never ever think about. Guys (in general) aren't wired that way. Add to the mix some crappy (and creepy) awful societal pressure (thigh gaps, anyone? -- the answer's "no" by the way) and tons of misinformation ("Calories in/calories out!" "Lifting heavy makes you bulky!") and it all can be a confusing cluster of contradictions, which just leads to frustration and failure.

3. This video program is free. Yeah, free. You sign up using this link and Summer sends you free videos. There is little risk involved.

And, yup, if you love her approach -- and I think you will -- there will eventually, at the end of the free program, be a chance for you to sign up for a paid program with Summer. (And, yup again, if you do that, I'll get a commission out of it, just so you know). But she's not going to give you a hard sell. Why? Because she's cool, and because, if she did, I'd be forced to go out to Vancouver and do this and no one wants that. (Seriously, if I thought this was going to devolve into a gross exercise in used-car-sales tactics, I wouldn't get involved).

So who is this program for? First and foremost: women! (Duh, you got that already, right?) But second: women who have a history of frustration when it comes to body-image/weight/fitness issues.  Maybe you've starved yourself, or "rollercoaster" dieted, or  "cardio"-ed yourself into a hormonal wreck. Or maybe you've even jumped over to a CrossFit-style fitness approach, or strict paleo, and you just feel like you've traded one form of obsession and guilt for another.

That's the end of my pitch. Summer's smart. She knows her stuff. She is downright empowering in her approach to all of this. She might be able to help you out.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Once you clean things up, it's pretty f*%^ing simple

I saw this post from PaleOMG and thought, "Yes!"

I'm all about eating (and living) in a way that makes sense for that moment and that day. The last two days I worked hard at the gym. Lots of deadlifts, squats, some rowing, metcon work, etc. So I needed (and ate) carbs -- clean paleo carbs, but lots of them. (It's possible that I altered my DNA to partly become a sweet potato -- covered in cinnamon, of course).  And I ate lots of protein too. Maybe more delicious animal protein than I actually needed, but we were at the best BBQ place in Philly at the time. Oh, and butterscotch pudding, because whatever, dude.... I wanted it. Eat whatever you want.

Today's not going to be all that active -- a little volunteer work at the local dog shelter walking some pooches, probably a long dog walk with our pack too. That's about it. So I'm not going to be stuffing in the carbs like I did the last two days. Right now, breakfast is going to be some sardines, some pastured bacon, a few eggs and some raw sauerkraut. Super low carb... because it feels right today. Super delicious because hell yes.

Remember: Whole 30s and challenges and all that are great, if you use them to clean up, detox and figure out how to eat day-to-day. But fuck food neurosis and rules for the sake of rules over the long haul. Figure it out. Go with it. Breathe deep. Enjoy life.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Lower Wolves... an idea turns into a band

Back in the mid-'80s -- from their first EP through their fourth album or so -- R.E.M. meant the world to me. This past summer, I went back to those records for the first time in ages, and played the hell out of them. They sounded fresh and amazing. Then, as summer turned into fall, I got an idea: I bet there are some fellow freaks out there who'd like to play this music and have a blast with it.

So I posted an ad in Craigslist Philly, and so began our band Lower Wolves. We had our debut gig last week at the Boot and Saddle in Philly (a great venue).

Here are a few videos from that one. Dig.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Simplicity, as a manifesto

I used to joke with a few readers of this blog who are also friends in real life: "I wonder when I won't have a thing left to say? I mean you can only have so many opinions about health and fitness and all that before you just start repeating yourself, right?"


It's not that I've reached the end point. But I have to admit that after a few years of holding forth on this and that angle of food and exercise, I'm so happy where I am at right now that the blog posts haven't exactly been flowing out of my fingertips like they used to. I'm kind of locked into a (very good) routine, so to speak, and who wants to hear the same thing over and over?

As I've told you any number of times, I eat whatever I want. That "whatever" has been modified often over the last few years of paleo/primal, through twists and turns of self-experimentation. (Intermittent fasting, anyone? Quitting alcohol for "health" reasons only to learn that doing so makes my LDL particle number soar?) But I've been kind of settled in for a while now. Ever since last May -- when I stopped midway through a morning routine of globbing butter and MCT oil into my "bulletproof coffee," which I was drinking at the time instead of eating breakfast, and wondered out loud, "Who the hell actually does this weird shit... and, most importantly, why am I?" -- I have been on a plan that I call "basic paleo." Or even better: "eating real food."

And it's been spectacular.

For me.

And yeah, this is where I pause for a moment and explain, for the zillionth time, that the subject of this blog is, as always, what works for me. What works for me isn't necessarily what works for you. So caveat emptor and all that. And no, for the love of all that is good and right, I am not telling you what to do, or even suggesting what you should do. But this, in bullet-point form, is what is floating my boat these days -- simplicity -- so do with it what you will:


I don't know when it happened, but it happened. Sometime after "paleo" -- you know: eating animals, vegetables and good fats -- got popular, it didn't really stay the same for long. Suddenly, there was "bulletproof" coffee, and intermittent fasting, and a whole lot of people going ketogenic and lots of supplements to help CrossFitters reach whatever the fuck "beast mode" is. And while every one of those things has a limited time and place where it can be effective for some people, it seems like too many of us (and I was one) got dazzled by the shiny fringes and forgot that most of paleo eating is eliminating the bullshit and complications, not finding new, more attractive forms of both.

To take but one example, yeah, a little (unsalted! grassfed!) butter in your coffee tastes great. That's cool. And no, saturated fat is not the demon that the food-pyramid folks make it out to be. But articles like this one have made me question why, in a bastardized version of intermittent fasting, I was skipping a nutrient-filled breakfast of real food for a nutrient-deficient fat bomb in liquid form. I feel like one of two things is going to happen to me from guzzling those buttered coffees: either caloric overload via saturated fat -- which can translate to bad results in lipid levels -- or nutrient deficiencies if I am subbing out real food and having that butter bomb as a "meal." So I quit the bullshit in favor of eating three actual meals a day -- three satiating, nutrient-filled meals of real food. No weirdness. No extreme deprivation either. I eat until I'm full and I hardly ever snack. My coffee, if I drink it? Black, because I like coffee.

And I am adopting this rationale with everything else. These days, the basics are what I stress, and the extremes are what I shun. Very few pills go in my mouth: magnesium (because it's almost impossible to get enough through modern food), a little fish oil if I haven't otherwise eaten enough fish, and a little Vitamin D in the winter when it is nearly impossible to get enough sun. But protein powder or other workout "supplements?" Nope. I ditched that post-workout in favor of this crazy stuff called real food. I am not an "athlete"; I'm just a guy trying to live long and be happy. Simplicity, through real nutrient-dense food, is helping me get there.


Somewhere along the line, paleo got labeled as "eating a lot of meat." And I get it; vegetables aren't super sexy, or at least they won't make your friends ooh and ahh like a juicy steak will.  But the one thing I've found the food-pyramid folks have right is a Michael Pollan-ish focus on eating lots of different vegetables, loaded with lots of different nutrients. All that "eat the colors of the rainbow" stuff? Yup. At every meal.


Does this require explanation?  Animal protein provides a range of amino acids, B-12,  and other nutrients that simply are not sufficiently available elsewhere. But always (always!) we eat the highest-quality animal protein that we can afford, because you want to know one thing the anti-meat folks have right? Poorly-raised factory meat is really bad for you.


I eat between four and seven cans of sardines a week. Really. Liz Wolfe will tell you why.


Type "paleo carbs" into your Googlemachine and you can settle in for hours of reading over the shitstorm that brews in Paleoland over the consumption of carbs. High-carb, low-carb, blah blah blah.

I've opted for what I'll call "appropriate carbs." If I lift heavy, or do something glycolytically demanding (like a CrossFit metcon, or a lot of drumming), then I eat some sweet potatoes, or white potatoes, or plantains. I might even have some fruit. If I have a day where I just walked, and didn't work out, then my body isn't screaming for a recharge on carbs, and I go lower-carb that day. If I get offstage, like I did the other night, semi-exhausted from beating the crap out of the drums and craving massive quantities of salt and carbs, I might even eat a whole freaking basket of French fries (yes, this happened, and no, it doesn't happen often). If it sounds like what I am saying is that I listen to my body and eat carbs appropriately.... yup. That's exactly what I do.

I also time my carb intake, rarely eating them in the morning -- so as to avoid an insulin spike/crash -- and, instead, I eat them as part of a post-workout meal, or even right before bed, because Zzzzzzzz.


Like this. As a result, I rarely get a cold, and that (maybe) once-a-year bout with some sniffles? It has not once turned into something worse since I began this broth regimen.

Also, before you call that a gimmick, it's just well-sourced soup stock, for crying out loud, not some sort of weirdo supplement.


I quit drinking coffee entirely a while back in favor of black and green tea. I saw an extremely positive change in what had become an annoyingly daily acid-stomach feeling. After a few months sans the vaunted bean, things were better enough that I will live it up and have about one or two cups of coffee per week. One of the sort-of side benefits of tea is that, unless you are going to drink a ton of it -- and I don't -- you are going to necessarily reduce your caffeine intake. Which brings us to....


Eight to nine hours. Every night. It makes everything work better. Mood, digestion, the immune system, just plain feeling good. All of it. And lower caffeine intake really makes sleep better. So does daily meditation. particularly when we are talking about avoiding the dreaded middle-of-the-night worry wakeup.


There is no "cheating," not because I don't ever eat non-paleo food, but because eating has nothing to do with cheating. It's all about, once again, knowing what you really want. That basket of French fries was a terrible idea, if I repeated it regularly, but I don't. So it was absolutely spectacular, right then and there. I ate it. I moved on. This paragraph is short, because it's that fucking simple.


I've learned that the single most important recreational activity for me is playing drums. The payoff -- physical, spiritual, emotional, the whole nine yards -- is more than you can possibly imagine. So every other recreational activity has to do two things: get the hell in line, and don't fuck with my drumming. Nothing is more important than happiness, and drumming makes me absurdly happy. But I'm 52 years old and drumming also exacts an enormous toll on my body some nights. I don't play softly, and I do play aggressively. So basically all my other fun -- CrossFit, particularly -- has to be structured around band practice, gigs and other times when I play drums. When I was 25, I could play drums for three hours, shotgun 12 beers and operate under an illusion that that sort of thing doesn't affect my playing. Now, everything affects my playing: sleep, nutrition, exercise, mood. Everything. So I try and structure my workouts so they enhance my endurance and strength, on one hand, and don't leave me so spent, on the other, that I don't play drums as well.


In the same vein, lifting heavy weights is a great way to exercise, but, if I don't do it intelligently, particularly with smart rest/recovery periods, it will drag me down. So my lifting week looks like a day of squats, a day of rest, a deadlift day, a day of rest, another heavy day (maybe overhead, or maybe another squat session), and more rest. Occasionally I will do a fourth day of maybe slightly reduced weights, but higher reps. But that's it. Usually just three days per week, maybe four. Like that raven said, "Never more." 


Drumming is metabolic conditioning for me, so I don't stress out over skipping metcon work at the gym, but when I do it? It's always short and fast. Chronic cardio? I find it counterproductive to fat loss and to feeling good. So does this guy. (And on the other hand, if long slow distance runs were what I loved, I would do them, because nothing beats happiness; I'd just understand how that affects my exercise/body-comp goals. Fortunately, I like drumming better). And in the end, if all I ever did for "cardio" (in addition to drumming) was sprint a few days a week, I'd be fine.


The pros call it "low-intensity steady-state" cardio (LISS). I call it walking. It has enormous fat-loss benefits without the cortisol-buildup downside of long-distance running or elliptical machines, or any of that stuff that most of the public thinks of as "what you do at the gym."  You can, and should, walk every day, because it doesn't beat you up like other forms of exercise, and it burns fat like a mofo (a technical term). If this whole lift/walk/sprint prescription sounds like I appropriated it from Jason Seib, it's because I did. As Jason says (I'm paraphrasing), the most amount of walking you should do is whatever you have time for.


As I told you here, I quit tracking my gym performance a while ago. I'm competitive enough already, and I'm not exercising to be the best exerciser. I'm doing it just as a vehicle to enjoying life more. I've learned that whether my one-rep deadlift is 405 or 425 just doesn't fucking matter. What matters is being happy. You may have heard that here before.

Because it changed my life (and still does).

And so all of that is what I do. It's balanced, easy and simple. It never requires a stress response, or a gimmick, and it always urges me to live in the moment. It also focuses me, above all else, on having fun and being happy.

'"Res ipsa loquitur. Let the good times roll."
    -- Dr. Hunter S. Thompson

Sunday, January 4, 2015

"Doubling down on the Zen sh*t"

It's like freaking clockwork, I tell you.

Every December, I lose my mind a little bit. And by "a little bit," I'm not engaging in some kind of reverse hyperbole. It's just a little. There's no freaking out, no substance abuse, no meds required, but there are levels of stress that I just don't have at any other time. And there's acid reflux/stomach pain that comes along with that. My stomach is like a near-instant barometer of my stress levels.

I could blame it all on something predictable like "the holidays" -- and there's probably a grain of truth in that -- but mostly I think it's because I invariably I get sloppy with my meditation practice by late fall.

Summer's my happiest time. Vitamin D in sunshine form is readily available. I'm at my most physically active. Hell, this year I was in California for a full month of the summer --- 15 days of hiking in the Sierras with my kids and an epic L.A.-to-S.F. trip up the coast with my wife for 15 more. Outside. In California. Every day. It has a lasting effect (for a while).

By October, I was killing it. Work. Home. Band. Everything. Awesome.

By November, I was so killing it that I was barely meditating at all.

Because, really, who needs to meditate when you're killing it?

By mid-December, I was slightly miserable, letting stuff bother me that I never normally would. By late December, my stomach was bugging me more regularly. Lately, even a little more....

Like I said, this lesson repeats itself yearly: Mindfulness isn't a destination. You don't get there, put away your stress and hang out for infinity. It requires a little regular self-maintenance.

So the answer to the above question is: Me. This guy. I'm the one who needs to keep meditating even when I'm killing it.

Like the title says, I'm doubling down on the Zen shit for January. (No, actual Buddhists probably don't use phrases like "the Zen shit," but I'm not one of them; I just like a lot of their ideas). Daily meditation. Twice if possible. No, I'm not running another "meditation challenge" where I try to get you to do it too. Sure you can join me, but this one, from my perspective, is about me. So no cajoling, guilt trips, daily posts about a "challenge." Nope, just some daily (or more often) quiet time to settle my brain down. Join in, or don't. I'm in because I need this. My head needs it; my stomach needs it.

'Cause I really like it when I'm killing it. And I really hate it when I'm not. And right now, I'm mostly not.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Squatting heavy past parallel: is it safe? Uhhhhh....

There are better ways to spend a Saturday afternoon than sitting in a hospital emergency room waiting to find out if you have a life-threatening blood clot, but, if you're the guy who might have that blood clot, there's actually, technically speaking, really no better way to spend your time than figuring that one out. And what does this have to do with squatting below parallel? Set yourself down, as Jed Clampett used to say. There's a story....

On a Sunday about two weeks ago, we took our dogs to one of those ridiculous "photos with Santa" canine events. I was fine with the concept for three of our four dogs -- it was a charity event, after all -- but Milo? He is afraid of everything, especially people he doesn't know. But my wife really wanted to try to get all four dogs in the pic. So we tried.

We failed. Milo hid underneath the bench that Santa and his helper are seated on. He's under there; I swear.

So we photoshopped him into the final product. You decide which edit is better.

Anyway, he was not calm. At all. But we got him back outside after St. Nick and the photos, and, as we were headed for the car, a woman who fancies herself very much the Dog Person tried to greet the lad. I told her this was a terrible idea, because he is afraid of everything, and we tried to walk away. But she, remember, is a Dog Person. Dog People, whom I otherwise love, have one personality flaw: they do not believe that any of the usual rules about dogs apply to them, because, after all, they are Dog People and understand the inner workings of your canine's brain better than you, the owner, do.

She caught up to us, offering biscuits to both Milo and the other dog that I had with me. Holly, the hungriest golden retriever in the world, gladly snarfed hers down. Milo, however, was unconvinced that this enthusiastic individual was not The Person That Will Eventually Kill Milo Because That's What People Who Don't Know Milo Try to Do (At Least in Milo's Mind), and he tried to get away. She came closer. He tried much harder to get away. There was flailing, and leaping, and looks of sheer terror. Leashes got tangled and, for a brief second, he was loose and about to bolt.

I went horizontal, tackled him and grabbed the leash. He was safe.

Now, when I say "went horizontal," you know what I mean. Hell, I know what I mean. In my head I looked at least this athletic:

But, let's be serious, I'm 52 years old. You should not be shocked to learn that my chest was not, in fact, the first thing to hit the ground. My right knee was. Interestingly, it took a few days to really start hurting. Then it really started hurting. Then lower-leg swelling started. It wasn't extreme to my eyes, but when my son, the third-year physical-therapy doctoral candidate, was visiting on that Friday night, he was concerned. He pressed on the swollen leg. A large indentation appeared and did not leave for many minutes. He said, "I hate to tell you this, and I'm not going to insist that you go to an ER at 10 o'clock on a Friday night, but first thing tomorrow you are going to call your doc's office and tell them that you have pitting edema in your leg and that I think you need to be tested for a deep-vein thrombosis (a.k.a., a DVT, -- a blood clot that can lodge in the lungs and cause a pulmonary embolism). If you have one, it can't wait until Monday. Technically, this could kill you."

The next day, the doc complimented my son's diagnostic skills, and sent me immediately to the ER for an ultrasound with a similar warning that this issue could not wait another day. Six hours later, after the ER doc bestowed further compliments on my son's skills, and after I watched more ESPN sports documentaries than even I ever wanted to (god, those 1980s and 1990s Miami Hurricane teams were obnoxious jerks, weren't they?) , I got the verdict: I hurt my knee (I knew that) and it's draining fluid into my lower leg (I mostly knew that). But no DVT. Yay team.

So.... I still needed to figure out what was up with the knee. A couple days later, I got an appointment with a sports-medicine guy who specializes in knees. He was great. He seemed super-knowledgable about the troubled joint in question, and we shot the proverbial shit about CrossFit and the like. I got a diagnosis like this: "You strained, maybe even slightly tore, your meniscus, and it'll heal on it's own within a week or two. Just go easy on it. No weight-bearing exercises until it stops hurting, and take some ibuprofen at least twice a day until it stops hurting and the swelling is gone." And then I thought of a question: "Hey, while we are talking exercise and all that, what do you think of squatting below parallel?"

He prefaced his answer with: "Well, I want you to know I am a former powerlifter. You wouldn't know it by looking at me now [true, dat] but I was." Then, while demonstrating fairly awful mobility, he showed me an acceptable (to him) squat that didn't even make parallel, and he said, "And I hate to tell you but, unless you are competing, the risk of going below parallel just isn't worth the reward. You get slightly stronger that way while exponentially increasing the risk of injury. Squat right to parallel, but I don't see the point in going past it."

Shit. I was afraid he'd say that.

So I left wondering about all that. I then read a lot of viewpoints on the issue on the web.  I'm not going to cite to any of them, because, honestly, a couple minutes with your standard Googlemachine and you can find them all -- and leave as confused as I am about the right answer. But the competing points of view amounted to this:

1. What the doc said. The injury risk goes up a lot past parallel, and, unless you are a competitive CrossFitter, O-lifter or powerlifter -- and have to go past parallel for competition purposes -- there's not a sufficient reward-to-risk balance. Don't go past parallel.

2. All human beings should be able to squat past parallel. It's an essential movement. That changes a bit with a barbell, as opposed to an air squat, and, yes, there is an increased risk of injury if a heavy barbell squat is done wrong, but going only to parallel does almost nothing for your glute and hamstring development. It is totally quad-driven. For proper muscular balance, you need to squat heavy past parallel.

I'll be honest: I have no idea what the right answer is. Both make a fair amount of sense to me. But, based on a lot of conversations with my son the PT-to-be, who is also a skilled, strong CrossFitter, here's what I plan on doing: I'm going to keep squatting past parallel, but, in light of my age -- which has to matter in the equation, right? -- I'm going to be careful about moving too fast up the ladder in terms of weight, and I am going to put my knee wraps on from the outset of my squat sessions, rather than just putting them on when things go past 75% of my one-rep max, which was my former practice. I notice that I am so much more stable of a heavy squatter with wraps on, and so why not start off right away with that kind of stability? It can't hurt, right?

So that's my answer for now, and I fully reserve the right to change it at a moment's notice if contrary evidence/argument convinces me to do so. I also emphasize that, seriously, I have no fucking idea what the real "right answer" is. This blog is all about me muddling through and trying to find out what works for me. Not for you. If my quest for general injury-free strength and happiness influences your own, then that is awesome, but understand: I don't actually know any more about these things than anyone else. It's all about sensible experimentation, as far as I am concerned.

Reports on my success (or failure) may follow....

Thursday, November 20, 2014

What if the president were paleo-friendly?

This is going to seem like a political post, an endorsement even. And, for the love of all that is good and right, believe me when I say that it's not.

(Seriously, I really don't know who I'd vote for in 2016 for president if the election were tomorrow. Last time, I voted for this guy, and, just yesterday, I said nice things about this guy's decision to form a 2016 exploratory committee. Yeah, I'm a bit of a political junkie, but as an observer, not an ideologue. My views are all over the political spectrum, depending on the issue).

But, when I saw that article by Dr. Mark Hyman about the wonders of combining the best parts of vegan and paleo eating -- something I do myself -- I got to thinking:

"Hey, wait a minute.... Isn't Mark Hyman Hillary Clinton's doctor?"

He is.

And, according to this article -- and this one too -- Dr. Hyman has convinced Bill Clinton to ditch veganism for a vegan/paleo hybrid. Hillary Clinton has been eating that way too.

Are you seeing where I'm headed here?

If the person elected president in 2016 were paleo, it seems like this:

would have a lot better chance of turning into this:

On one hand, my libertarian-ish instincts make me seriously question why the government is in the business of suggesting how people should eat, but when it seems like it's going to be quite a while before that stops, it'd be nice in the meantime if the suggestions were updated a bit to get off the grain/hidden-sugar train.

A paleo-friendly president might help that happen. Surgeon General Mark Hyman?

Food for thought, anyway.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Combining the best of veganism and paleo? It makes a lot of sense.

I have no beef with vegans. (You may see what I did there). Seriously, I've never been one to bait or harass the vegan community. I think most vegans eat like they do for principled reasons, and I also think that when their focus is appropriately on eating (mostly organic) vegetables and fruits, that aspect of their lifestyle is right on the money.

But I also think there is a solid place in a well-rounded diet for well-sourced animal protein.

That's why I like this article so much. It's called: "Why I'm a Pegan -- or Paleo-Vegan -- and Why You Should Be Too."

In the article, Dr. Mark Hyman lays out a compelling case for combining the best aspects of paleo and vegan food plans. In fact, part of the reason I like it so much is that it's exactly what I have been doing lately. I feel like I am right on target.

I've often explained my food choices of late as: "OK, so you know what a vegan is, right? I'm a no-wheat/no-soy vegan plus animal protein."

And, as someone who hasn't really liked the word "paleo" for a while -- because it just launches people off on a "caveman reenactment" tangent --  I applaud the effort to rename it (despite the name of this blog).

But, dude, "pegan" sounds like a person who consumes no animal products, and... is incontinent.

I opt for "pagan." And I don't care if it means something else. No one's going to seriously confuse the two. Or not any worse than what they'll do with "pegan," anyway.

The Pagan Drummer? I could attract a whole new crowd....

                                          (pic from Experience Life magazine)

Monday, November 17, 2014

A return to the Pickled Heron for a spectacular pork dinner

A couple of years ago, I reviewed a Philly restaurant called The Pickled Heron. I ranted. I raved. I still stand by the notion that the foie gras I ate that night is the single most delicious food item I have ever tasted. It was a very good meal.

But Philadelphia has a lot of great restaurants, and, somehow, amidst going to a lot of those other places, we only made it back to The Pickled Heron once -- in 2013 -- for another great meal. So the other day when I saw an ad for this:

I made a reservation for my wife and me. Date night? Pastured pork from Philly CowShare? Done up right in a myriad of ways by Daniela D'Ambrosio and Todd Braley, the very same two chefs responsible for that foie gras? Sign us up. We even got a spot at the vaunted 5:30 p.m. seating -- "vaunted" to us because we are old and 8:30 on a Sunday night seemed like a really late dinner with work looming the next day. (Sleep is paleo).

The Pickled Heron is BYOB (but they now accept your Visa and Master Card, unlike the cash-only operation they were when we first went there; have I mentioned the foie gras we had back then?), and I am good with that. We splurged at the liquor store on a $35 bottle of Amarone for which most restaurants would have charged someone else (because we would never spend that much on wine) $100.

And into the restaurant we went. Todd and Daniela greeted everyone with a little spiel about the wonders of Philly CowShare (and they must be nice bosses because the same funny dude who was our server in April 2012 was our server again last night), and into the first course we were launched....

It was called "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes." There were three parts: head-cheese-filled croquettes, pork rillons on a small piece of semolina bread with mustard and a housemade trotter terrine with cranberries. I dig the nasty bits, so I loved it all, but particularly the first two items. The trotter terrine was also very good, but paled a bit in comparison to the other two. And the standout was the pork rillons, which took me briefly to a sunny hillside in my mind where I could gaze upon further memories of that foie gras. It was almost that good.

But, like a good first course ought to be, that was just a tame warmup for what followed: "Cider Braised Belly of the Beast." We both exclaimed, "Oh my god," on the first bite. I suppose that, in some sense, even a kitchen oaf like myself could find it hard to ruin pork belly, but this was so far on the "perfect" end of the scale that I can't even imagine making it myself. Daniela and Todd know their way around a kitchen.

"This one's called pork-crusted pork loin and, no, no one was drunk when this idea was made up. [Pause] I'm lying; of course they were." Server-dude then described the third course that he had put on the table. It was pork, wrapped in cabbage, wrapped in pork with corned-beef seasonings. And it sat on a plate with a "red-beet flannel hash" that exploded with flavor. You simply can't make this at home. You will fail in epic sorts of ways that will cause you to get drunk, but a drown-your-sorrows kind of drunk, not the celebratory one that must have followed (inspired?) the creation of this dish. This is why you sometimes go to places like The Pickled Heron and pay other people to make your food for you.

We were exhausted from all the deliciousness.

Dessert followed. Apple pie with a lard crust (from El Piggo, the real superstar of the evening) and a bourbon malted ice cream. Of course it was amazing.

In sum, they've done it again. The Pickled Heron has blown our minds with another meal. At the end of the dinner, we got to say hi to Daniela and Todd.  Of course they are absurdly nice people in addition to being talented chefs. (She said something like, "Yes! We know you. We follow you on Facebook! I love all your food stuff." I win!) And seriously, I've already placed a pastured-pork order this morning with PhillyCowShare. Everyone wins. Go eat at The Pickled Heron.

The paleo stuff:

Having made it this far through this post without making jokes that involve the words "pork" or "head," I feel somewhat obligated to continue this unexpected venture into maturity and instead address a question that the paleoistas amongst us might have. I think that question goes something like:

"What the hell, dude?"

Translated: some of you are likely pointing out that some of that meal wasn't very paleo.

Wellllll, sort of. Actually it was pretty paleo. And here's my deal with the parts that weren't: I wanted to eat them, and I eat whatever I want. It's that simple. I eat pretty close to a Whole30-style version of paleo at home these days. I never eat wheat at home (and almost never anywhere else either) and I have found that a number of things other than wheat bug the crap out of my stomach if consumed with any regularity. Lately those things have been dairy, coffee, black beans, tomatoes and red wine, so I hardly ever have them. But yes, I was pretty sure that the small doses I had of wheat and dairy and the not-so-small dose of red wine were worth it in terms of (a) having fun and (b) minimal hassle. So I ate every single thing on my plates. My wife ate every single thing on hers. This caused our server to say, "You guys are the ones I never have had to doubt during this meal."

And sure enough, by the way home I had enough of a burn in my stomach that some activated charcoal was my savior. (Seriously, it is the escape hatch from questionable food decisions).

As that wise man once said, "Buy the ticket; take the ride." Eat whatever you want; just know what you really want.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

In the Age of Awesome, the troglodytes really stick out, or: Why I'm never flying US Air again

The New Jersey Turnpike is, traffic-wise, traditionally speaking, a portal to hell. The last few years? It's been a significant bit worse than that. See, there's been this widening project.

It's been a colossal undertaking. A 35-mile-long stretch of road that was six lanes wide was slated to be widened to 12 lanes. That meant clearing 70 miles (35 on each side) of obstructions, side roads, etc. Then came the real kicker: every bridge/overpass over the thing had to be torn down and a new one constructed at double the length.

Just think about that for a moment and let it all sink in.

Like I said, it was a huge project.

And it got finished early, for $200 million under budget.

The "new" road is spectacular. The other day I took a 100+ mile drive on it for work and, instead of the three(or more)-hour slog that I had gotten used to for that trip, I sailed through at top speed.

I see the whole thing as a testament to hard work, technology and the modern age. Serious congrats to anyone who was involved with that. We Garden Staters appreciate it.


Another thing I have learned to appreciate in recent months is a free phone app called Waze. It's, at first blush, "just" a GPS device, but its users input so much current data into it that it manages to stay, fairly spectacularly, on top of traffic conditions. As a friend says, "Waze don't lie!"

When my wife and I were recently in San Francisco, Waze guided us through traffic there seamlessly. One day we were doing a drive that I had previously done twice that week. I almost didn't turn on Waze because I had gotten used to the route. But I did anyway....

"What the hell?!!" I exclaimed moments later. Waze appeared to be taking us on an absurdly circular route waaaaaaay around the usual one. "Waze has lost its mind. I'm not doing that!"

I quickly learned that Waze had its reasons. My independent-minded/Waze-less route ran headlong into a sprawling street fair that had closed blocks and blocks of the Castro. It took me half an hour to extricate us out of the mess I had created and, at the end of the half hour, I got onto the seemingly circular path that Waze had first charted out for us.

Waze don't lie. We were "home" to the place we were staying with no problem, once I decided to accept Waze's sage advice.

So, in addition to saluting the hard-working folks involved in that gargantuan NJ Turnpike expansion, I'd also like to single out Waze for technological/yay-for-the-modern-age kudos. I've used it many times since, with never-fail results each time.


But before you think we're just about to form a drum circle and sing Kumbaya, celebrating just how awesome our little niche of history is....

Let me tell you about US Air.

You may have seen those Southwest ads, the ones about "no change fees." (I love flying Southwest, by the way).

US Air has change fees. 

But it's worse than you might think. And there is just no reason for it to be this bad.

Earlier this year, a relative of mine was headed to Europe for academic-study purposes -- basically a summer-abroad program. I was paying for said program and so, when I booked his flight, I did it on US Air despite having heard some horror stories about their baggage handling (particularly in Philadelphia). US Air simply had the best price and the only nonstop from Philly for the flight he wanted.

He got really sick with mononucleosis about a week before the trip. The whole thing had to be canceled. Any possible thoughts of toughing it out and going anyway were ground to a screeching halt by his doctor. "No way," we were told.

OK. So I contact US Air about canceling the flight and, presumably, getting a voucher that he could use for another flight some other time that he needed to fly. Here's what I was told:

He had one year from the original booking to rebook any round-trip flight, domestic or international. Cool. He had $1150 worth of voucher to do that. If the new flight cost more, he would have to pay the difference, and if it were less, he would lose the difference. OK. I get all that. There's a $300 "change fee" as well. I'm not thrilled, but OK....

I say to the US Air agent on the phone: "So, basically, because 1150 minus 300 is 850, he can book any round trip for $850 or less and he will be good?"

"Yes, sir," the agent replies.

Not really, it turns out.

So, moving forward to last week, my relative is running out of time to use his voucher. He needs to book a flight before the end of February. He doesn't really have many reasons to fly anywhere, but it turns out that he and his friends have figured out somewhere to go, and I volunteer to book his flight for him because I have all the original voucher info.

I book him a flight that costs 500-something. Cool. I figure 500-something plus the "change fee" will still come in way under $1150. Yeah, a few hundred in voucher will be lost, but whatever.

It turns out that US Air's already backward policy of charging a change fee at all is worse than I was told. It appears that they don't take the change fee out of the voucher. You have to pay that with real money.

I called US Air. They explained to me that, yes, this is their policy and no, nothing can be done about it, and yes, it will cost me 300 extra dollars of real money beyond the money that I have already paid them if I want to book that flight.

I book the flight. I pay the $300 change fee, with real money. Not from the $1150 voucher, because they won't let me.

I booked it because I felt bad for my relative. He had made plans based on my assurance that it was all going to be easily covered by the voucher. But...

Let me just take this moment to tell US Air that I will never, ever pay to fly your airline again. If you are the only airline flying from Philadelphia to a destination that I want, I will fly another airline through Reykjavik with a layover in Dubai if necessary. Your already greedy and senseless imposition of a change fee is bad enough, but refusing to apply voucher money to it -- money of mine that your airline already has in its pocket -- is a special brand of avarice.

Truly, I hope you lose all of your business to more forward-thinking airlines like Southwest.

So I raise my mug of delicious caffeinated beverage to you, the workers on the New Jersey Turnpike, and to you the app-developers at Waze, and yes, to you too, Southwest Airlines. You are shining examples of how we keep moving forward, despite the shuffling, stumbling, downright infuriating behavior of the troglodyte companies.

Like US Air.