BNT (Best New Thing): Episode 1, Oh Myyy!

In the spirit of Rachel Maddow and countless other internet memes, I will occasionally post something I deem to be a super-neato thing I found out in the world. They’ll get tagged with “BNT” and “Best New Thing”.

Here goes with Episode 1:

George Takei has his own URL shortener domain (and primary book domain, too):

http://ohmyyy.gt

Oh, myyy!

REI Ditches Return Everything Incorporated Nickname

REI's Original Flagship Store in Seattle

REI’s Original Flagship Store (courtesy of Seattle PI)

Social media has assisted in “implementing” the tragedy of the commons – after increasing awareness and braggadocio (spurred by comments in an Outside Magazine article last fall) of a particularly liberal return policy, this summer it hit REI (Recreational Equipment Inc.).

Just when it seemed that under every social media rock I found comments about REI and their standing as the place to go buy stuff at full retail because you can always ALWAYS return it no matter what, that well-distributed knowledge has spelled the end of the policy. Now, you’ll get a year for returns – unless the item is actually defective, in which case you still have a lifetime warranty.

The internets abound with stories about customers simply no longer liking their item after many years of happy use, or waterproofing not working after a decade, or the color of a bike not matching the owner’s new car. Yes, for reals.

While the policy went into effect in June, there’s been a recent bump in media coverage from the likes of Entrepreneur and the Wall Street Journal, culminating in a Morning Edition story today on NPR. Perhaps news takes longer to sink in, especially a policy change that won’t affect customers immediately. But when folks try to return their stuff and are met with the new rules, they definitely pay attention.

Other companies still have extremely liberal return policies and do not currently have plans to change such as Patagonia, L.L. Bean, and Orvis; a spokesperson for Orvis says, “We trust our customers to know where the line is,” seeming to imply that REI customers contain a bunch of freeloaders.

In recent months I’d heard from many different sources about REI’s legendary returns free-for-all, something that escaped my notice because, for one, I have a freakin’ conscience. If I took a 10 year old tent back and said it didn’t work for me anymore and got money back and a new tent, I’d feel like crap! Seriously, if the product has a defect or if it does not last as long as it should for the price, that is one thing. But REI had been suffering to some degree (profits down 4% in 2012 to $29 million – and REI is a co-op so that money goes back to the members) at the hands of those who decided it was OK to return anything because they usually paid full retail – as if their brains decided that they had built up a “buffer” of profit for REI that they are allowed to draw down upon when it suited them.

Geez, the more I write about this the more annoyed I get with those freeloaders. Therefore, let’s turn this rant OFF, and over to you. What do you think of the changes? Have you been a happy or guilty beneficiary of the old policy?

Eat Carne Adovada in Honor of Mary Gonzales

Mary GonzalesOn Tuesday, September 17, 2013, Albuquerque lost a legend of local culinary genius: Mary Gonzales of Mary & Tito’s Cafe. Mary, originally from Santa Fe with Spanish ancestry, managed the restaurant she and her husband Tito founded in 1963, with the enthusiastic help of her daughters and cooks that have worked for her for over 30 years.

I had the honor of interviewing Mary in 2008 for an article about their recent James Beard American Classics award, an award they won three years in a row. She was also featured in an Edible article from 2010 about food treasures on North 4th Street. Here is Mary’s story, from my interview notes and my history with dining at Mary & Tito’s. Enjoy.

My first encounter with Mary was about 10 years ago after a tip from Jason Sheehan (the Alibi’s food writer at the time); I was enjoying some fabulous red chile as she perched in the corner of her dining room, ringing up checks and greeting regular customers with a huge smile and about six pounds of turquoise jewelry. She was your mind’s incarnation of a perfect New Mexican grandma, never a matriarch with too much time on her hands, just a gentle person with a smile for everyone.

Tito had just retired from the military and after two weeks of “unemployment” he couldn’t take it any more and decided to open a restaurant. Mary was working downtown at the court and he showed up one day to inform her of his decision. She was pretty dubious about the prospect.

I thought he was out of his mind to open a restaurant!

They opened first at 4th & Mountain with a 5 year lease before moving to the current location. For 10 years, Tito did all of the cooking with one dishwasher and one waitress; after a big expansion into a new building extra help was needed both in the kitchen as well as in the dining room. From the very beginning, Tito served up red chile by the bucket as well as something he called a Mexican Turnover – what we now know as a stuffed sopaipilla. For all I know, Tito freakin’ invented stuffed sopaipillas, right here in downtown Albuquerque, five decades ago.

In 1989 Tito passed, and Mary kept up the very popular business with the help of her daughter Antoinette and long time employees. They continue to make the red chile sauce just the way Tito taught them, from whole pods from Hatch, NM. Here’s how: the pods are washed, boiled until soft and then hit with some serious blender action. Into a huge stockpot the vital red slurry goes with a “tiny” amount of shortening and salt to season, then cooked for another half an hour. That’s it – you can make your own red chile in the style of Tito, but you will not get near the experience of actually eating in this comforting establishment that feels like home. Even Mary had little interest in non-local cuisine; while she like most folks she has a sweet tooth, when asked about her favorite non New Mexican food she was clear:

Really, all I want is chile, chile, chile.

Mary was beloved, and that’s a great thing. She WAS appreciated while she was still around, and I hope that she really understood how much people were in awe of her contribution to the Albuquerque food scene.

2013 is the 50 year anniversary of the start of Mary & Tito’s, five whole decades since Tito marched up to Mary and said, “I’m bored. I’m starting a restaurant.” We’ve all been rich with New Mexican spice ever since.

Plumpy’nut Is Not Food; Also Not Death

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plumpy’nut

500 kcalories of processed survival food

More than a decade ago, a European researcher noticed how darn tasty and fattening Nutella was, and realized that with a little tinkering, something like it could be created for famine sufferers in Africa, who needed something to get them through to better days. He used a bit of creativity and technology to create a super food. This “super food” has a two year shelf life and contains protein, carbohydrates and some fat as well as a bunch of added vitamins. As a category, this kind of food is known as a RUTF: Ready to Use Therapeutic Food.

No, it’s not Pop Tarts, it’s Plumpy’nut. (Though as you can see below, the ingredients are not that different from Pop Tarts, after all.)

Ingredients in Plumpy’nut: peanut paste, vegetable oil, powdered milk, powdered sugar, vitamins, and minerals

Manufacturer: Nutriset, in France. Plumpy’Nut was Invented in 1999 and recently more visible with articles by well known folks like Dr. Sanjay Gupta (“The Funny Sounding Nut Paste That’s Saving Children’s Lives in Somalia“) and websites as big as Huffington Post (“Just How Much Can This Peanut Paste Reduce Hunger?”). I do disagree somewhat with Dr. Gupta’s assertion that the ingredients of Plumpy, as it’s called locally, are “nearly the perfect ingredients for the starving  human body . . .”; I could come up with a better formula in a heartbeat with slight change in cost. The New York Times is similarly cautious about the future of peanut paste supplementation due to some (seemingly petty given the cause) patent and copyright concerns.

Box for Plumpy’Nut Challenge

Campaigns also exist to raise awareness like The Plumpy’Nut Challenge by the British charity Merlin, which asks otherwise well-off westerners to eat nothing but Plumpy’Nut for one day while Tweeting about their experience and pledging money for charity. Not a bad idea, and ONE DAY is easy. Really, really easy – despite what most participants say. A week or a month would be harder, but no one would sign up for that. Shockingly the success rate for this one day challenge is not 100%. People are wussies, but I digress.

For those kids that consume Plumpy’Nut as a means to NOT DIE, the situation is different, obviously. Later, when death is no longer a threat, one hopes – one REALLY hopes – that a return to traditional foods is the final step. This is a topic I will continue in another blog post – how vastly different a grain-based traditional African diet is from the grain-based stuff that is eaten every day by Westerners.

Stay tuned, and don’t worry about the stress of signing up for the Plumpy’nut Challenge – there isn’t another one until 2014.

Five Years Since Starting Hot Yoga And I Got . . .

If you’ve done yoga for any number of years, you already know that the above and the below are the WRONG questions to ask or even speculate. Pose the questions and get an immediate game show like buzzer sound:

What has yoga DONE FOR ME? <Errrrrr!>

What do my triceps look like? <Berrrrrrr!>

Can I do Crow yet? <BERRRRR!>

What a person “gets” from yoga is a spectrum from nothing in particular to the tools you need to cope with Western society. No more, no less. You get a little more flexible, a little more gentle, one hopes. It is not about achievement or levels or belts or PRs. But still, a milestone is a cool thing, so I found this in my email box today:

Email from Hot Yoga ABQ

Email from Hot Yoga ABQ today for my anniversary

I have been in and around yoga for exactly 5 years today, with an 18 month hiatus in there along the way. Initially it did wonders for both my psyche and my physique. Of course, like all things the effect wanes with time.

Everyone understands that a drug addict needs more and more as time goes on to get the same effect, but that is hardly limited to drugs. Pretty much anything habitual with a physical component will have a slow compensatory effect, from running to pushups to hiking to coffee brewing techniques to typing speed to . . . you name it.

Our nature is to constantly change with our environment, seek out new challenges (or be bombarded with new problems to solve without any choice in the matter, as was the case for most of our evolution), and leap to a different level or pastime when one has exhausted it’s ability to fascinate. Just before my hiatus I wasn’t sure what was “next” for me with my practice so I decided to just stop and see how long it took to come back. Months, days? It was more than a year; it seems I do well while doing yoga but it does  not take up my life, nor is it a black hole when not a part of my daily routine. I work with it, or without it.

I do still love it – love watching the trembling of balance, the stillness of mind after exertion, the ease of friendships in the studio. For now, I will continue.

Thank you to Molly and Bruce, who made this their entrepreneurial calling nearly 10 years ago, and to Jamesina, who took me to my first class with James and unleashed my monster: it was a downward (dog) spiral from there.