Great social tip

From Tricks of the Trade, on how to mingle at parties:

Always enter a conversations with a drink you are about to finish.

If things don’t go well, all you need to do is take one last gulp from your drink and excuse yourself to get another, never to return.

That’s a good, even obvious idea on its face. But dig deeper and there’s a built-in feedback mechanism that takes it to the level of genius. The more boring conversations you abort, the more drinks you’ll have to finish. At a good party you’ll be pleasantly buzzed. At a bad party you’ll tanked. Thus the strategy automatically adjusts your level of intoxication to the setting necessary for enjoying the company of those around you.

“Just be sure to stop in time to make a graceful exit,” adds the voice of experience.

[Via Lifehacker.]

Back from Rites ’06

Yes, blogging has been light lately, and yes, it may stay that way for a short while as I work on some other things. But this weekend I had an excuse as I headed down to Nashville to visit friends, toss the Aerobie, and attend this year’s Rites of Spring concert. One of the most amusing parts of this outdoor music festival is always Vanderbilt’s hopeless attempts at making sure that in a crowd of hundreds of undergrads only the ones over 21 are drinking alcohol. Chad describes our utterly pointless troubles with The Man here.

The low point of the concert was unquestionably Clap Your Hands Say Yeah!, who had everyone within earshot commenting that they were one of the worst bands they’ve ever heard. It was amazing to hear how many people (Barzelay, for example) have said that their studio album is very enjoyable, despite their terrible live performance. The sentiment was so universal that I’m almost convinced it’s the result of an insanely genius marketing strategy: after enduring such a miserable hour of their live music, I’m almost tempted to buy the album just to see how they can possibly produce something good. Almost.

New magazine for drink lovers

I was in Charlotte last weekend for the Specialty Coffee Association of America 2006 conference and one of the cool things I picked up there is the premiere issue of the new magazine Imbibe. The bimonthly is devoted exclusively to drinks as their own culinary realm, not limiting itself to any one beverage. This first issue includes articles about third wave coffee, the drinks of Oaxaca, introductions to the seven Trappist ale producers, a look at organic wine, and quite a few recipes, profiles of people in the beverage business, and bar recommendations. The layout is stylish and dominated by content, not ads.

One interesting bit I learned from the issue is that in Utah, consumers’ wine choices are selected by pretty much just one guy. Direct shipping is illegal and wine sales are limited to state-run liquor stores, only one of which specializes in wine. Thus wine sold in the state must pass the approval of the “wine czar:”

Utah has a wine czar. Yep, a state employee named Brett Clifford officially works as the “wine coordinator,” but his eminence better fits the “czar” moniker. Since 1979, when the state opened its first wine specialty store, Clifford has tasted nearly every wine that has been sold in Utah; it’s his job to choose which bottles end up on store shelves and restaurant wine lists. “I believe that Utah has perhaps the only extensive wine tasting and buying program of just about any retailer in the United States,” Clifford says. “Most everyone else buys on reputation, publication, and sales record, and pricing incentives. We are very proud to serve the Utah consumer.”

Today, he and other state-employed tasters sample about 500 wines a month. On Thursday afternoons, you’ll find Clifford and two members of his sampling team evaluating various bottles in an official room used for wine tasting only. All arriving samples are immediately logged into the computer and tracked until the bottles are empty. The samples are stored under lock in a temperature-controlled room next to the tasting room, and both rooms are under constant video surveillance. After all, not even the wine czar imbibes without oversite of the state.”

That’s a hell of a nice job. Though poking fun at the position a bit, Imbibe is ultimately sanguine about the czar’s power, noting that he keeps a lot of bad wines off the shelves. Not mentioned is how many good wines are kept out of consumers’ hands by Clifford and the state’s illiberal wine laws. For a magazine devoted to celebrating drinks in all their variety, I would have expected a little more criticism.

Actually, a hint of credulity could be the one flaw in an otherwise consistently good magazine. The article on organic wine, for example, includes a sidebar on biodynamic wines. While noting the “inherently spiritual” nature of biodynamic practices, the sidebar treats them as positive step beyond organic farming without mentioning the well-deserved skepticism many hold for their benefits. While I can understand why the editors would want the first issue to be especially genial, I hope they will develop a slightly more critical edge over time.

Those complaints aside, it’s a great beginning for this magazine. And for just $15.95 for a charter subscription, I’m definitely willing to take the risk on subsequent issues being just as good. Sign up for a year or two’s worth here.

[Update 4/17/06: I didn't notice it until Slashfood pointed it out, but the Imbibe website has a very neat Flash preview of the magazine. It's like virtually flipping through the issue to the lead pages of all the major stories; useful and just fun to play with.]

[Cross-posted on Smelling the Coffee, where I also write a bit more about the SCAA conference.]

The $700 valet

Growing up in Texas, where we don’t have space limitations and the parking spaces are sensibly sized like football endzones, adapting to the parallel parking conditions in DC has been a challenge. In Texas, I didn’t have to be able parallel park well to pass the driving test. In fact, as I discovered, I didn’t even have to obey all the stop signs. Standards are a bit more relaxed down there.

Parking around DC is more difficult. As a few unfortunate friends can attest, backing my Aztek into a crowded spot usually requires at least half a dozen tries and a consultation with my seventh grade geometry text book.

That’s why I think Toyota’s new “parking assist” feature is so very cool. The $700 option does all the work of parallel parking, leaving the driver to merely ease off the brake pedal to control the car’s speed. It’s only available on hybrid models in the UK right now, but will probably be making its way to the US. Be sure to check out the video to see a self-parking car in action.

[Via Barzelay's newly del.icio.us weblog.]

The name of the course is the famous Mr. Ed

This article on the debate about slaughtering American horses for food is unexpectedly fascinating. Most Americans find the idea of eating horse meat repellant, primarily, I suspect, because of the horse’s high place in American imagery. But in restaurants in Canada, France, Italy, Belgium, and Japan, the meat is treated and priced as a delicacy. Some of that meat comes from three plants in the US, who export the meat or sell it to American zoos to use in feeding big cats.

Last fall, Congress included an amendment in an agricultural bill that would have shut the trade down. Though not banning horse slaughter, it forbade the use of taxpayer funds for the inspection of horse slaughtering facilities. This put the plants in the difficult position of being technically allowed to sell their meat, but unable to get regulatory approval of their product. It was basically Congress’s way of outlawing horse slaughter without having to take a vote on the subject explicitly.

In March, the Department of Agriculture amended its internal policies to get around the new law, allowing slaughterhouses to pay the $350,000/year inspection cost themselves. Congressmen are predictably upset, and Republicans in the House and Senate have introduced bills that would outlaw transporting and slaughtering horses for human consumption.

Arguments against horse slaughter tend to evoke noble animals involved in the Kentucky Derby, Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, and the Pony Express. They also like to throw in that the three US plants are “foreign owned.” Opponents of the ban, including some veterinary groups, stress the potential unintended consequences. Unable to afford expensive euthanasia and rendering, they argue, horse owners deprived of the right to sell their animals to slaughterhouses will instead let them live on neglected and in inhumane conditions.

Personally, as long as horse slaughterhouses are held to the same standards as all others, I see no reason to ban them. But it will be interesting to see how this plays out in Congress. If the bill stays quiet, I wouldn’t be surprised if agricultural interests can keep the trade alive. If it garners public attention, I expect few congressmen will be anxious to come out in favor of eating Mr. Ed.

For more, see the Wikipedia entry on horse meat.

[Via Slashfood.]

Par for the course in S.F.

To ban smoking the fair way, must one ban it on the fairway? Some San Franciscans seem to think so.

The Board of Supervisors Neighborhood Services Committee passed a ban on smoking on The City’s five public courses on Monday. Supervisor Jake McGoldrick pushed for the ban after the same committee approved a ban on smoking at transit stops last week. McGoldrick said it would be wrong to approve a measure that he said largely affects The City’s working class, while not approving one that would that affects The City’s wealthier residents as well. The full Board of Supervisors takes up the ban on smoking at transit stops and golf courses today.

Secondhand smoke could hardly be a concern on a golf course, so there’s not even the pretense of a health motivation for the ban. Just a really weird sense of social justice that says if you’re going to make life miserable for poor people, you’d better find a way to do it to rich people too.

[Chi Chi Rodriguez-esque putter brandishment to Baylen for the link.]

Equal time

Since I spend so much time on the blog defending the right to eat, drink, and smoke things that may or may not be bad for you, it’s only fair that I occassionally link to something skeptical about an indulgent lifestyle. We’ve all read that moderate alcohol consumption could help prevent heart disease. As noted by Marginal Revolution and EconLog, however, a new meta-study suggests that studies finding this result suffered from a common flaw: long-time abstainers were grouped in with former heavy drinkers as “non-drinkers,” then compared with people who drink moderately and regularly. Correcting for this sampling bias, say researchers at UCSF, makes the supposed health benefits of drinking disappear. Be sure to read the whole article for the details.

Five Guys burgers are big business

The Post today has a really good article on Five Guys, Northern Virginia’s famous local burger chain. Starting with five locations four years ago and standing at 87 and counting today, the restaurant is expanding rapidly in coverage and value.

Today the business is by some estimates heading toward $1 billion in value. Five Guys has 87 locations. Most are in the Washington region, but a hundred more will open along the East Coast this year, and another thousand are being phased in. Each store, the company says, pulls in about $1 million a year.

One of the things I love about Five Guys, and about many of my other favorite establishments, is the passion to do one thing and do it well. This is captured in the article’s description of how the brothers running the company fight about things like whether tomatoes should go on top of pickles, or pickles on top of tomatoes, and the arcane arguments in favor of each configuration. The Hamburger Hamlet, in contrast…

But places like the Hamburger Hamlet aren’t exactly worried. Leon Hines, the manager of the Hamlet in the Rio Entertainment Center, didn’t even know there was a Five Guys in the nearby Kentlands. Besides, he said, his restaurant offers a more traditional restaurant experience. “We’re selling more than hamburgers,” he said. “We’ve got salads. We’ve got steaks.”

Amanda at Metrocurean worries that Five Guys’ growth threatens its status as a hometown treasure. Personally, I’ll be glad to have their burgers available all over the place as long as they preserve their high standards. To that end, it’s interesting to read about their quality control measures. These range from limiting the number of times a burger is pressed on the grill to one, to shaking French fry batches fifteen times, to a restrictive franchising policy that requires owners to purchases a minimum of five locations. That high startup hurdle helps limit their franchisees to serious professionals.

East Coasters, find your nearest Five Guys here.