Monday, August 28, 2017

I've Walked the Earth

I've walked the earth.
It takes so long.
Here one corner, and there another.
The more I walk, the more corners I find. 
I want to look through them all, to get to know them all,
but the more I look, the more I realize I don't have enough eyes for everything.
For every corner I explore, I have to leave another untouched.
With every turn I take, I am farther from where I began.
At first this doesn't bother me--but then I wonder where I am going in such a hurry.
When can I stop looking?
If I will never be able to reach every corner, then how many corners do I seek before I can go home?
When can my eyes, so eager to explore, finally explore home?
I have seen all the secret places far from where I live.
But I left home in such a hurry that I forget to seek its secrets first.
I've walked the earth.
Then my feet led me back, to walk my own land.


I like to travel. I can't say I don't. But I don't travel much and most of my travels have been to relatively nearby locations--and I'm okay with that. Sure, I'd like to branch out some more in the future, but I'm not in any hurry. There are so many more nearby places that I either haven't visited at all or haven't gotten to know very well yet. If there are places nearby to me that I would go to if I were traveling and yet I haven't been to them yet, where is the sense in that?

I want to cultivate the here and now first. When you do that, you can flow more naturally outward to see your place in the greater whole. The city in the county in the state in the country in the continent in the hemisphere in the world in the universe. When I say that I want to focus in on here before there, I don't mean to say that I want to ignore other places; I just mean that you need to have a place that you are directly interacting with on a daily basis. How can you have a good influence on other places if you don't start with your own place?

Friday, August 25, 2017

The Chocolate Categories

I was never into the star system for rating things. It doesn't explain nearly enough and it implies that you should be directly comparing things that may in fact be very different even though they are in the same broad category (books, movies, chocolate, etc.). So when I am writing a chocolate review, you've probably noticed my difficulty in simply saying: it was bad, it was weak, it was okay, it was good, or it was excellent. The truth is much more complicated than a simple statement.

Over the years, I've begun to develop my own vocabulary for describing what a chocolate offers. So I'm going to take today's post to briefly describe (along with some examples) what I mean by the chocolate categories I tend to reference in my reviews.

Candy - This one should be self-explanatory. This means Hershey's, Mars, and Nestle products and their kin. Reese's Cups, Three Musketeers, M&M's, that sort of thing. The chocolate itself is the smallest factor in products like this. If a chocolate's packaging doesn't look like a candy wrapper and yet that's the category I put it in, well, that's criticism. I don't generally think too highly of this category because most of it is cheaply made with bad ingredients, but I don't dislike candy, so I am completely in support of other brands trying to make better quality chocolate candy (in particular there are quite a few alternative Reese's Cups for sale these days). "Candy" shouldn't mean "low quality," but unfortunately it usually does.

Confections - Although very similar to candy, when I refer to confections I think more of brands like Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory. They do make all of their sweets by hand (they don't make the chocolate themselves, just the truffles or candied apples or whatever else they sell), and that gives them a different feel to off-the-shelf candy. Usually the quality of confections is a little better than that of candy--but that isn't a general rule of my category. Instead of just tasting sugar, vanilla also plays a strong role. Confections aren't gourmet, but they can be just as satisfying in their own way because they come with an element of nostalgia. Milk chocolate usually; if there's dark chocolate, it's the light kind.

Mass-Produced Chocolate - Think of Godiva. Some of their chocolate is good, but none of it is as good as they claim that it is. They claim that it's a gourmet indulgence, the diamonds of the chocolate world. Yes, it can be nice to pick up one of their truffles after a day at the mall in the same way that you might buy a cookie. But Godiva doesn't make diamonds. Mass-produced chocolate is the chocolate that you can instantly distinguish from fresh, handmade truffles (you know, the kind that only have a shelf-life of two weeks).

Casual Chocolate - This is such a vague phrase, and yet I find myself using it often. This is chocolate that isn't trying to be gourmet or high end. It's just trying to use quality ingredients to make a product that tastes good. I usually put brands like Theo into this category. Theo is one of my favorite brands to share with people because it's readily available to buy and because the look and flavors are straightforward. You don't have to tell people to sit quietly and smell the chocolate and snap the chocolate and taste it in five steps in order to describe the flavor notes (I mean, you can, but you don't have to). You don't have to read a novel about the kind of cocoa or the conching method used. You just eat this chocolate and come away pleased (well, if it's carried out correctly).

Gourmet Chocolate - Some people call this craft chocolate; I don't like that name because it just reminds me of wine and beer. I prefer calling it gourmet because that's the word that, for me, truly implies the care and devotion that goes into chocolate like this. Amano, Michel Cluizel, Domori, Pralus. Fine chocolate made by people who take care to visit the cocoa plantations and choose the specific cocoa beans they want to use--and then use that same attention to detail along every step of the process. Quality ingredients is just the beginning for chocolate like this. This is the chocolate that you can talk about for hours if you want to because it's a topic in itself. This is the chocolate that can be most exciting to write about or publicly praise because of its high standard.

But do you see what I mean now? As wonderful as gourmet chocolate is, I don't want to eat that all the time. Sometimes I just want a chocolate candy or confection. So it would feel unfair to rate a gourmet chocolate higher than a confection if they are both doing their job and achieving their specific and separate goals. That's why I describe what a chocolate offers rather than just sticking to a star-like system of rating. And yes, there is crossover in my vague categories. Some products fit into more than one place, and probably some don't fit well into any of them. But this is just a quick look at some of the vocabulary I use; each review is of course going to describe the specific case that is each individual chocolate.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Disney Boys: Introduction

Over a course of some months, I had a series of posts in which I analyzed the Disney princesses. Mostly I was defending them by pointing out the ways in which they are positive role models; I also looked at the ways in which specific characters offered more or less of the various things we might want from role model types. Given that those posts were popular (and I do enjoy talking Disney), now it's time to turn from the girls to the boys. I think that it's important for both girls and boys (and for women and men, for that matter) to see both girls and boys (and women and men) in fiction.

So while it was easy to just do a dozen posts on the twelve official Disney princesses, what am I planning for the Disney menfolk? I've made up my own set of rules. All Disney feature length animated films--no Pixar. Mainly only human characters, but a couple of animal characters made it in, too (The Lion King transcends animal/human and in Robin Hood they're basically just animals playing people, so that works). I've chosen twelve of them to match the twelve Disney princesses and make them both even numbers. No princes from Disney princess movies (though I could easily talk about Philip from Sleeping Beauty, the Beast from Beauty and the Beast, Shang from Mulan, and Flynn Ryder from Tangled), mostly because I don't want to repeat things that I might have already touched on in the other set of posts. The one exception is Aladdin because that movie both is and isn't a princess movie and since it's named after Aladdin instead of Jasmine, it's the perfect subject for this series. (Moana isn't an exception because Moana isn't even considered an official Disney princess, anyway.) And I'm choosing only characters who are the main part of their story and who represent something positive (either their identity or their personal journey).

Here are the films I've chosen: Pinocchio, The Sword in the Stone, The Jungle Book, Robin Hood, The Black Cauldron, Aladdin, The Lion King, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, Tarzan, and Moana. I confess that I haven't watched Wreck-It Ralph yet (I kind of thought it was Pixar, and I don't keep up as much with Pixar because I don't usually like Pixar much); I think it will be part of this series, but if I watch it and decide that it doesn't, I'll go with Peter Pan instead (though honestly that wouldn't work perfectly because the film is more about the Darling family than about Peter himself--he's just a symbol, really).

I don't know to what degree I'll be comparing the male characters to the princesses. Going in, I'll have so many different sub-topics that I don't know what will be the main focuses by the time I've finished the series. I'm going to aim to do at least a couple of these a month, possibly more depending on how it goes. So this series could run anywhere from three to six months long.

While you wait for the first post, you can start over again with my Disney Princess Analysis. Click here to read what I had to say about Snow White.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Half-Broke Horses

For starters, Half-Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls is quite different from her first book, The Glass Castle. The latter is her memoir of her childhood and the former is the story of her grandmother's life. So you do, especially towards the last third of the book, get some hints of things to come (both events and themes)--but overall it's a separate story.

The tone is different and the beats of the story are all different, as well. Part of this is the fact that Lily's childhood goes by fairly quickly, so we're not seeing the story of children struggling to get by with their parents--we're seeing the story of a woman taking charge of her life, again and again. She's quite the inspiration.

Stepping away from her family's home to be out on her own, getting herself ready and able to teach, moving here and there, riding her horse alone for a month through the Southwest to get to a teaching post, cleanly putting an end to a bad situation, learning to fly a plane, and working harder than hard every single day because that was what she asked of herself. She worked hard because she knew she could do it and she knew that the results she would get from working hard would be so much better than the results from just going with the flow. She saw how things could be depending on if she acted one way or another, did one thing or another--and she decided what to do based on what she wanted to happen.

Texas, New Mexico, and mainly Arizona make up these pages. And that makes me wonder why it took me so long to read this book, given that stories like this of people who lived in the Southwest are exactly what I love. Given that Jeannette Walls was writing her grandmother's story, she had to call this book a real-life novel. It's technically fiction--but it's based on truth. The ranch, the teaching--the person; that's all true. So in a way, this book is like an oral history. It's this family's story, the story of a woman who lived and prospered in the last days of the West.

It's strange. She (Lily) talks about the new people that were able to come in to the Phoenix area once air conditioning made the real temperatures tolerable to them. She says it, you know, a little disdainfully--but rightly enough so because she lived and worked outdoors for enough years that she proved she could easily tough out something so small as the weather. So you want to take her side when she says things like this--but I'm probably one of those people. I'm part of that wave of people who moved to Arizona out of California (not to Phoenix, but still to Arizona) in this modern age of air conditioned houses and cars, grocery stores with fresh supplies, and paved roads. I don't have to live like Lily did, and I know that there are so many things that the modern age has lost, so many connections with this land that we no longer have. But I am grateful to people like her who were here before--and to those who were before her.

The more I think about it, the more I realize another strange thing. Lily loved respecting the land (taking care, for instance, not to let the cattle overgraze and things like that), but she also loved new things. She loved airplanes--and then lamented when the air become so controlled with the same flight paths and such that cars needed to follow. But she wasn't the only one who loved planes, and when you have so many people using something, well, you have to put down some rules and organization just to keep everyone safe. There are losses as time moves forward--but that's just the way it is.

I'm almost ending on a somber note there. So I'll finish by saying that I enjoyed this book as a source of people's stories, a source filled with what it was that made their lives theirs.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Madecasse: Mint Crunch Dark Chocolate

Time to make our way through more Madecasse chocolate. This time the familiar lemur sits against a green background--because this is the Mint Crunch Dark Chocolate bar. The cocoa content is 63%.

As soon as I broke the seal on the foil wrapper, out came the scent of Andes Mints. This was, for the first moment, a welcome and inviting scent--Andes Mints, after all, can be rather nice. But then I began to wonder if that was really the scent association that I wanted to find--Andes Mints, after all, are also rather cheap.

The same mint scent carries through to the taste, so the mint aspect of this chocolate bar is the same as in Andes Mints. Andes Mints are labeled as containing "peppermint oil" and this bar lists "organic mint oil." Pretty much that's the same ingredient, at least as far as taste goes. While this particular mint taste is often the flavor that we get in products, it just . . . doesn't taste all that much like a mint leaf.

Here's my problem. Andes Mints, while they're marked as something to add sophistication to get-togethers (like Ferrero Rocher), they're in the same category as Hershey's Kisses--that is, the mass-produced candy category. So that's the scene with which I associate this particular mint flavor. But the other elements of this Madecasse bar suggest a different scene.

I have spoken favorably in the past about most of Madecasse's dark chocolate, and the same goes for this case. In addition to the chocolate (which is already a different species from candy chocolate), there are nibs in this bar. This is where the Mint Crunch part comes in. The use of cocoa nibs to give that crunch is a smart idea. Nibs do have that pleasant and particular crunch that's hard to describe but impossible to not recognize. So I like the idea of just adding this basic chocolate product instead of adding cookie pieces or something like that, in which case you'd also be adding in at least another five ingredients. The thing is, though, nibs elevate the chocolate and draw more emphasis to the richer, more flavorful notes.

This would be great--except that then there are two opposites in this chocolate. Fresh and flavorful cocoa and watered down mint oil.

It's kind of a shame.

And it isn't that this chocolate is bad. It tastes fine and maybe majority of people wouldn't be pausing over it as long as I am. I just think that it could be (and was so close to being) better. I'm only being hard on Madecasse because I expected more from them. You know when you unwrap certain chocolates and get a fresh mint scent, like there's a mint plant right next to you? That's what I wanted here.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Star Wars & the Inferno Squad

I wasn't exactly excited about another Star Wars: Battlefront book. Then I saw that Inferno Squad would be written by Christie Golden, who also wrote Dark Disciple, and I thought that perhaps the book would hold some interest for me, after all.

As I'm beginning to realize and talk about, certain of the Star Wars books interest me more or less depending on where they place the focus. Books about characters and places and emotional themes are best. Books about politics and battles not so much. The first Battlefront book was very much just a wartime, army book focusing on a team making it through the fighting. This book starts off as if it's going to be similar. There are some skirmishes. Then the setting changes.

Inferno Squad takes place directly after the destruction of the first Death Star. Inferno Squad is a small Imperial group that goes undercover in a rebel group based around Saw Gerrera's ideals. Basically they've living in a cave trying to act like people they aren't--and sometimes feeling gray areas develop. Perfect. The cave living almost reminded me of The Host at times (though it's nowhere near as rustic as that), especially given that you have a close-up look at a confined group of people trying to get along with one another. And all of these questions about identity and loyalty are exactly the types of things I like to get from Star Wars--and the type of character-based content that I expected from Christie Golden.

Sometimes I don't like when stories explore the gray areas, when they try to portray villains as not being wholly evil or show that neither side is perfect. I get it, and it does usually make for interesting storytelling. But Star Wars is great because of its themes of good and evil, so you do have to be careful in what ways you explore those gray areas. Somehow, even though Inferno Squad is all about showing the perspective of Imperials who are just trying to do their duty to restore peace and order to the galaxy, it works. The reason that it works is that it's straightforward: the characters don't really waver much in their ultimate loyalty because they believe in their cause. And it works because the rebels that they're seeing up close aren't the Rebel Alliance--they're like Saw's rebels.

Here, of course, we have the welcome tie-in to Rogue One. There are plenty of references to that storyline. And we have further exploration of the rebel groups who are quicker to action (and quicker to violence) than the Alliance. You can't argue with Iden choosing to stay loyal to the Empire versus joining this group.

So, yes, there's action in here, but it's all character-based, making this one of the Star Wars books I've enjoyed more rather than less.

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Glass Castle on Film

Click here to read last week's post focusing on the book.

While there were certain greatly noticeable changes made in the book to movie adaptation of The Glass Castle, I find that I can understand why the filmmakers made these changes--and such coherency isn't always the case in adaptations.

Part of it is timing. Jeannette and her siblings start off a little older in the movie and we see more time from when they are older children and even adults than in the book, where more is shown of them as very young children. This is practical: there are already three (three, right?) actors playing each of the children at different ages. It would be too much to have even more actors. And it's easier to play through crucial scenes with slightly older actors than very young actors.

There was also a mixed timeline. The book starts with a loosely-defined "present" and then moves into the past (childhood/youth) before finishing off with the present/adulthood again. The movie moves back and forth between the two, which I at first found a little strange. This change meant that certain notes fall at different times or places in the movie than in the book.

Most of the movie takes place in Welch, instead of showing the family's time in the Southwest. I particularly missed getting to see early Phoenix on film. I also didn't like this change because I felt that the move to Welch represented the loss of hope. Before Welch, the family was doing okay (well, sometimes and in some ways) and the children still had some degree of faith in their parents. In Welch, the children lost that faith as their parents just let everything physical fall downhill--and the children, in light of that, grew up and took it on themselves to try and take care of one another. So from that sense I don't like this change in the movie. However, in another sense this change just meant that, once more, notes just fell in different places/times.

One more change. While the book maintains that direct telling-of-truth tone (it's easy to picture Jeannette with a background in journalism) and lets the readers put everything together themselves, the movie gathers all the little threads and knits them together into a central theme. I glanced at one review that condemned the film for this, basically stating that it made the story shallow. I can kind of understand: the focus went more onto maintaining love for the parents than on understanding to get out of a bad situation. So part of the power may have been lost: we all know that we're supposed to try and keep love for our parents but it can be harder for people who have been raised in bad situations to be able to say that those situations were negative and that they deserve and can have better (while also understanding that to say this isn't to say that you hate or disrespect your parents).

Ultimately, though, I'm going to go with what I've said twice already: the notes just fell in different places. I still felt the same things watching this film as I did in reading the book--and that's the main point. What this film did was take what readers got out of the book and make that into the film. It's almost like when Andrew Adams tried to make The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe into an action film because that's what he remembered getting from the book as a child (although the problem there was that he missed out on what was important about the story--it wasn't the "exciting" parts). Fortunately, in this case the filmmakers better understood what mattered in The Glass Castle. So while, yes, adaptations can be difficult to approach, I find that this was one of the better ones I've seen.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Chocolat Suisse: Chocolat au Lait

Probably this is more the type of chocolate I would have reviewed a few years ago than what I tend to select nowadays. It's a Swiss milk chocolate that came to me by way of the friend-of-a-friend type situation--and I believe it did make its way all the way from Switzerland. Since I have it and since foreign chocolate is an interesting sub-topic of chocolate to cover (since we all get used to the styles of chocolate that are sold in our home countries), I'll go ahead with a review.

The packaging implies that this is a pretty standard chocolate in Switzerland. No "fine chocolate" style but also not really the candy bar look. I'm not sure if I should be referring to the brand as Confi Swiss or Chocolat Suisse, so we'll go with the latter. As you can see, this particular bar is simply labeled as Lait: Chocolat au Lait, or Milk Chocolate. The ingredients list tells me that the cocoa content is 25%, which is, once again, a pretty standard lower end of the cocoa content spectrum for casual milk chocolate.

The shiny surface of the chocolate contains an interesting design. While the simple rectangles are nothing new, they do have a curved rectangle pattern inside them that is less usual. For some reason the look reminds me of Willy Wonka. The chocolate gives off a creamy, caramel, lightly nutty scent with a sweet richness.

Texture-wise, this chocolate is very smooth in the mouth, possibly too smooth. The texture is thick and sticky, almost like peanut butter. While interesting simply as a novelty, I don't ultimately care for this kind of texture. The flavor quickly works up to a nutty caramel and finishes off with a warm cocoa aftertaste. I was expecting it to taste milkier than average, but I don't find it to be so after all.

Basically, it's just a milk chocolate, sweet and greasy. But it is rather different from most milk chocolates I come across. (There was another chocolate that had this same type of plasticy texture and possibly a similar flavor, but I can't quite remember what it was.) It's okay--and maybe some people will enjoy that thick texture because it gives the chocolate more of a munching quality. I said that the outside didn't look like candy bar style, but in fact the effect of the texture and flavors isn't entirely unlike a chocolate candy made with caramel and nougat.

So I am going to categorize this chocolate in the candy category, not my loosely-defined "casual" category. I could see it for sale in the U.S. and doing just as well as Hershey's and Mars and Nestle (Nestle is, of course, also a Swiss brand, though I think most Americans don't realize that). But would I seek out this brand again? Probably not.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

John Keats & the Art of Beauty

Last month I wrote about the emotional quality of John Keats's poetry. I also mentioned that I had been moving slowly (quite slowly) through his complete poems. Actually mentioning this fact of my slow reading made me feel like I really had better just finish the volume instead of dragging it out any longer. Add to that the fact that I have a specific reason right now for wanting to get my voice used to speaking for a long period of time, and I decided to read Keats for an hour out loud every day. Here's to hoping my neighbors couldn't hear me reading out all of his love poems.

Reading in this daily way, like how you would read a novel, proved quite different from reading in order to provide literary analysis. I had no pressure to think of any particular topic or to think with any admiration toward any particular piece. So I easily settled in to enjoying a particular poem or passage--or disliking a particular poem or passage. I didn't care much, for instance, for his experiments (is it bad that I'm calling them experiments?) with plays; while Otho the Great did have its moments, these moments were the times when the lines reminded me most of the regular poems. And I can see why even Keats wrote in his preface for Endymion that certain sections were weaker or better than others; I tended to agree with him that there were some wonderful sections and also some that didn't quite keep my interest.

The greatest power that Keats had, as a writer, was his ability to put together beautiful language. This is why we love his descriptions of nature and of love--they're simple concepts that can fold out into an endless array of images and emotions. So even when he is writing his longer poems that have multiple characters and bigger plot lines, these moments of description are still the best. (I'm not even going to try and give examples because this is just a short blog post; I don't have space to go into more detail.)

But what I also found in this daily reading was the hollow quality of beauty for beauty's sake. Keats intentionally focused on beauty--and the results are indeed beautiful. But when you are focusing only on beauty in, shall we say, a more shallow sense of the word, then the impact can only go so far. You admire how a rose looks and you smell its aroma and then you're done; that's it--it can give you no more. That's how Keats can be. Don't get me wrong; I much prefer Keats to Oscar Wilde. Wilde was also about aesthetics above all else--but in a different way. I think Keats more respected the world around him--and he loved the natural world, which Wilde I think couldn't stand (that quote where he says that manmade chairs are so much better than anywhere you can sit in nature--that just describes every way in which Wilde and I disagree).

Back to Keats. His poetry is oftentimes, as we know, tragic. That's part of what makes it beautiful; we all love a good tragedy. But it's also part of what keeps his work from having deeper meaning. He remarks on beauty but he gives no hope--beauty in itself (this definition of beauty, that is) is not enough to give hope, especially for all of the tragedy that he describes.

I'm not saying that this is a bad thing, artistically speaking. A single poem (or any single piece of whatever kind of art) can only do so much. That's where the reader (or viewer) comes in. We absorb each piece individually for what it offers and then we put them together in our minds. This artist shows us this and that artist taught us that and so on--until we have our heads filled with art in all its contexts. We look at pretty things and we feel different emotions and we ponder different themes--and then we draw conclusions and live our lives, with all of this art sitting somewhere in the background.

"'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,' -- that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know" ("Ode on a Grecian Urn") That is what beautiful art tells us, but it is not what we know when we are done admiring said beautiful art.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Glass Castle

Normally I don't get into the whole "read the book before the movie comes out" thing. Either it's a book I've read or it isn't; either it's a movie I want to see or it isn't. This case, however, was different. I've been hearing of Jeannette Walls for a while, so when I saw a secondhand copy of The Glass Castle a while back, I picked it up. Then I was talking to someone recently who said she was looking forward to the movie because she had really enjoyed the book--and I thought I'd better finally get around to reading it myself. I do that: some books I read as soon as I get them and others wait for years for my attention.

Sometimes that just makes for the right timing.

Now must have been good timing because I found that there is something in The Glass Castle that's absolutely brilliant. The quote on the front cover from People draws a comparison to Frank McCourt--but I mostly disliked Angela's Ashes so I don't know how much I agree. I think there is a more subtle sparkle within this book. Not the sparkle of goodness or the sparkle of happy memories. It's the sparkle of decision.

This book is a memoir, describing Jeannette Walls's childhood and leading up to her first adult years. There are sad things and there are happy things. There are things that a child wouldn't have seen as bad but an adult would. While the tone in which she describes events is matter of fact and therefore often neutral (you get the sense that she is mainly just trying to tell the truth of what happened and not imprint later thoughts on the past), there is a subtle change that takes place about halfway through, when Jeannette is changing from a child into a young woman.

There comes a point when she sees past the adventure and resilience that her parents speak of and sees their failings. As she realizes her parents' faults, she still holds into the resilience that they taught her. She decides that she doesn't want to live like they do--and that's a powerful decision.

Some people will relate to elements of this book. While I can't say that I do personally, I have heard stories from other people that made some of this sound familiar. So what I really found powerful was this decision that Jeannette and her siblings made to lift themselves out of the rut that their parents set up for them. It's one thing to be raised to have a positive sense of self and your self within society, but to be able to stand up above the various ways in which parents can be holding you down must really be something, something difficult and also powerful.

And it isn't from a lack of respect for or love for parents, either. This is why the matter of fact tone of this book works so well. It isn't about hatred. And it isn't even about a childlike choice to hold onto magical illusions. It's just about the truth. Jeannette's parents raised her to be smart, and for that reason she couldn't wait to make for herself a better life than they had ultimately made for her.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Green & Black's: Toffee Milk Chocolate

I did it again. I bought another sugar crystal/toffee chocolate. This time it's part of my "second look" at Green & Black's. As I mentioned before, I've probably reviewed all of the bars from Green & Black's at some point--but it's been years, so I've mostly forgotten what their chocolate is like. This is me starting over with Green & Black's, today with their Toffee Milk Chocolate.

I have nothing more to say about the familiar packaging for now; let's move on to the chocolate. I was surprised to find the chocolate's aroma generic. It has that typical sweet, caramel milk chocolate aroma, which is nice enough but not singular. The implication is also more of confection-style chocolate.

Though the toffee isn't visible from either the front or back of the car, the fairly big little bits of toffee are visible once you break off a piece from the whole. (Forgive the melty look in the picture; it's summer.) The first taste of this chocolate is simply sweet; the caramel and vanilla notes come in next, then a touch of earthy richness along with more vanilla. After having all of these chocolates lately with sugar crystals and crunchy caramel pieces, it's pleasant to come back to actual toffee. There is a difference: toffee has a more specific crunch and more of a glassy flavor. The proportion of toffee in the chocolate is balanced.

I do like toffee, so this chocolate bar is nice. I'm enjoying eating it. But it's probably easy to see that I'm somewhat disappointed. The chocolate is pretty standard--above the candy bar level, certainly, but I had expected more. This is indeed what I would categorize as confectionery, and not simply because there is toffee involved. The only problem with that, if it is a problem, is that I didn't think of Green & Black's as making confectionery chocolate. This is indeed a casual, sweet bar of organic, fair trade chocolate that's great for when you're craving sweet chocolate, not fancy artisan dark chocolate full of flavor notes. But the simple packaging implies that this is sleek and refined chocolate.

Or does it?

Maybe Green & Black's lets you fill in the style. Maybe they have such a generic packaging because they don't want to imply anything about their product. Their main selling point has always been their organic, fair trade status. Before there were so many fair trade chocolates to choose from, Green & Black's was there to provide that option. So they let the consumer decide if this is fancy chocolate or casual chocolate--and all they tell you is that it's a good product. I'm labeling it as a confection, but to you it might be something different. And I suppose that works. As I keep stressing, while artisan chocolate is absolutely wonderful, we don't need all fair trade chocolate to be in that style. So if Green & Black's is one of the companies that offers some of the more casual options, then I am supportive of that.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Food Guidelines: What I Eat

This two-part post is different from even my usual randomness. So feel free to ignore it if you think it's odd. And yes, we all know that I'm not a nutritionist.

As a continuation from Monday's post, today I'll give you some examples of the types of everyday foods that I eat. First, a note on eating out.

Restaurants - I don't eat our on a daily basis (so when I do I'm not as concerned about what I get), but I realize that it isn't so simple for many people to limit eating out. You might go out to eat for work or with friends, or maybe you really are too busy to prepare all of your own food. So the simple guideline is to try and eat out in places that stick to the guidelines you would want to keep to at home. Things that are freshly made will have less undesirable ingredients. While salads are recommended as healthy choices, I don't necessarily recommend them. Sometimes they're terrible, sometimes they have even more food than other menu items, and sometimes they're simply not what you feel like eating and therefore you won't feel satisfied from eating them. (Not that it's bad to order a salad--I'm not trying to discourage that at all. I'm just saying that it isn't always your only option.) Instead, just try and keep a balance in what you're eating throughout the day or week and stick to the guideline of eating the amount that you need to satisfy instead of under or overeating.

Breakfast - I never skip a meal. I don't understand how most people don't eat breakfast. I also don't understand why many people would rather wait at a drive through window to get coffee and a pastry instead of spending five more minutes at home to eat a better version of the same thing at home. So here's what I do. I have a big mug of black tea in the morning. Remember, you've been asleep for hours; you need to hydrate, whatever it is you're drinking. Limit the sugar in the morning; you'll feel better for it. Everything has its place, and the place for sugar is not the morning. As long as you don't specifically have a gluten allergy, don't fear bread. Just look for a local bakery; if it's too much to buy directly from them, Whole Foods probably carries their bread, too. Limited ingredients means a better product that you don't have to feel guilty about. Butter? I use it pretty much every morning--that is, whenever I have toast, which is most mornings. Organic, unsalted, sweet cream butter is what I like to get. I also have one or two eggs most mornings. Again, don't fear eggs; they're a great food. I buy the organic, pasture-raised eggs (which, yes, might seem expensive at first, but how much does that coffee from the drive through cost again?). Sometimes I'll put the egg on the toast with some cheese. Sometimes I make a soft-boiled egg. Sometimes I sauté some potatoes or zucchini on the side. Or I add avocado to the toast and egg. Sometimes I'll mash some beans. If you have leftover rice, you can crack an egg into it while you're reheating it in a pan. And of course let's not forget about oatmeal. When I have oatmeal, I let it cook while I'm getting ready in the morning, then add a spoonful of honey to it.

Lunch - Lunch is kind of odd, I know. Usually lunch you can't eat at home, so that can make it more difficult. Leftovers can make a good lunch, but if you're like me and you don't use microwaves, then anything that needs to be reheated isn't an option when you're not at home. Some leftovers you can eat cold, over a bed of greens, but I really don't usually do that. And even if I'm home, I'm more likely to use leftovers for dinner than for lunch. Tuna is a good lunch food, either in a sandwich or over greens or with tortilla chips or crackers--but again, depending on where you eat lunch, you may or may not want to be bringing in fish. I stick to a sandwich most days. Peanut butter and jelly really is a nice combo--just use organic peanut butter with no more than two ingredients and use all-fruit jelly (sometimes they'll add a little extra fruit juice to sweeten it) or at least one with reduced sugar. I usually, illogically, scoff at "reduced sugar" labels because I don't think that sugar itself is the problem, but I do think that nearly all jellies contain way too much more sugar than they need. I want to eat my sugar in chocolate and cookies, not in jelly. Jelly seems like one of those products, like bread and honey, that you can easily buy local--but I'm just not happy with the amount of sugar in the jelly that's made around here. Anyway. Sandwiches. Remember that instead of buying cold cuts, you can also just cook a little extra meat for the week. Slice that up and use it in sandwiches. I also make pasta salad sometimes for lunch; it's also easy thing to take with you. All I add usually is salad dressing. Not a very balanced meal in itself, but remember that each meal doesn't necessarily have to be balanced as long as the total of what you eat in a day is. Fruits make good accompaniments for lunch, or even just a little bit of greens.

Dinner - When I'm by myself, I don't eat meat every day. I would never become a vegetarian (obviously never vegan, either), but I also think of meat as more of an accessory than a main dish. Sometimes it's the main part of a meal, but it's a small percentage of what I eat overall. Usually it's salmon (which is easy to cook and just needs a touch of seasoning) or chicken (which I season more). Instead of eating meat all the time, I make a pot of beans nearly every week. Pinto are nice, but I also like to get other kinds. It can be months before I buy the same kind again: there are just so many varieties and they all taste different. I make rice often. I've been most fond of brown rice lately, though I didn't much favor it in the past; now I find it rich and meaty. With white rice, usually I've been adding tomato sauce to make it into orange rice. Steaming vegetables (make sure not to leave them in too long) is great; you just add some salt to them and there you have a simple start. You can just put steamed vegetables over rice for an easy dinner. I also make potatoes pretty often. Sometimes I'll boil several of them to keep in the refrigerator for when I want them, whether for breakfast or dinner. I make what I call mock fries sometimes by slicing up these potatoes, then cutting them into thin pieces, and sautéing them in a pan with plenty of salt and a touch of pepper. Sliced potatoes can also cook in the oven with olive oil and rosemary. Mashed potatoes are good with butter and sometimes cheese. Tortillas make a nice accompaniment to most foods. And remember that a salad can be as simple as greens with cucumber slices set on the side of whatever else you're eating. Oh, yes, and pasta is a good, quick dinner when you haven't planned out anything else. Pasta sauce is one of the "processed" foods that I do buy, though I do keep an eye on the ingredients list.

Extras/Desserts - Nuts and dried fruit make for good snacking items that are easy to carry around with you. But I do also favor tortilla chips, sometimes with salsa, for when I'm at home. I frequently eat tortilla chips late at night. I always forget to make popcorn (yes, I'm one of the people who still pops popcorn in a pot on the stove--why would you want to make it any other way when half of the fun is getting to watch it pop?), which I season just with salt, but I always think I should make it more often when I do. Fruit is a good in-between food. And as I keep mentioning, if I'm craving something sweet, I'll either have it right away or plan when I'm going to have it. If I want brownies, I'll make brownies (I recommend Martha Steward's Double Chocolate Brownies recipes). Or cookies, or some cake, or just chocolate. I used to not like pancakes until I realized that they taste kind of nice when they don't come from a mix; very occasionally, I'll have them for lunch or dinner (remember, I don't eat sweet things in the mornings)--I use maple syrup, not the faux syrups that dominate the shelves. (Actually, I do make scones for breakfast sometimes--and I top them with honey or jelly, so that would be the exception to my morning rule.) My point is: if I make these things myself, then I know what's in them. And since I have to go through the extra trouble of making them, I'm less likely to make them every day and more likely to spread them out over multiple days (as long as each item can last before it goes bad, which is less time for scones and more time for cookies).

Obviously I'm not listing menu items, nor am I listing every single food that I eat. I'm only trying to give an idea of my attitude toward food. On a daily basis, I don't go all out. I don't make dishes or follow recipes. I just make food, usually simple and sometimes plain. I think this is why some people get overwhelmed at the idea of cooking at home: they think they have to be making elaborate meals all the time. You don't. And you also don't have to shy away from basic ingredients (unless, of course, you have a specific allergy or extreme health concern). Use butter, use cheese, use sugar, use potatoes--just buy specific types of these and other ingredients. You know, buy a whole piece of parmesan and grate it at home so that you know you're not eating wood pulp. Buy organic potatoes so that you're not eating all the pesticides from the dirt the potatoes were sitting in. Buy the peanut butter that isn't full of oil and sugar. That sort of thing.

And don't feel like you have to follow the current "healthy food" trends. I don't understand why there is such a big section full of kale chips when they're something I can't even imagine wanting to try, much less each regularly. I'll eat salad as salad and chips as chips; don't try and combine them. Recipes with black beans in the brownies? Maybe it works out great, but what's really the point? Beans taste good on their own, and brownies can have their place as dessert. Sure, I don't drink milk, but I stopped long before it was popular to. And like I said, though I see so much vegan food nowadays, I would never go vegan. If that's a choice that you want to make, go for it. Just make sure that you're not just jumping on food bandwagons that you don't really want to stick to. See what works best for your tastes, your lifestyle and habits, and your intentions. You vote with your dollar, and we all buy food. What kind of food do you want to support?

And what kind of food do you want to nourish yourself with? If you care about the body that you're living in, then don't you want to treat it well?