Thursday, August 25, 2011

Basic Essentials Classes 101

If you were to take a class named Wine Essentials, with the following description...

Whether you are just discovering wine or an enthusiast who needs a refresher course, our Wine Essentials Course will provide you with the building blocks. You will learn the five S's of wine tasting as you explore 8 different wines. This class focuses on the 'classic' grapes, where they grow and why they grow there.

...what would you expect the class to entail? How advanced would you expect it to be?

How about a class named Smoking 101?

Maybe my reading comprehension needs work, but I thought it was a safe assumption that these classes would be geared toward beginners who are looking to be eased into the intimidating worlds of wine and barbecue.

We took the “Wine Essentials” class recently at Cellar Rat, which is a nice store in the Crossroads with a good selection. Those who read this blog know I’m more a beer guy, but I do enjoy a good wine and have always enjoyed visiting this shop. They go out of their way to be enthusiastic and not pretentious about wine. They organize their store by price: the entire center section is wines under $25, while the more expensive bottles line the walls.

We and seven others sat down for the class. There was a group of 3--a set of parents and their daughter--down the table. The mom gleefully explained that the daughter was an architecture student and had just turned 21, and they wanted to set her off on the right foot. The mother also explained that they had drunk wine all over the world, but had never taken a formal class.

Oh boy.

The instructor was a friendly guy in his late 20s who started by giving us a brief history of wine. He then explained a technique for tasting wine, using the five ‘S’s – see, swirl, smell, sip, savor.

For the first wine, he asked us questions, like “What do you see?” Someone said “it’s really light,” and a comment from our resident experts was something to the effect that the color was normal for a Riesling.

When someone asked if we should rinse our glasses for the next round of wines, our experts piped in before our instructor, “No! No, you should never rinse your wine glass with water. There’s chlorine in water.”

Later, when the instructor asked what scents we picked up in one of the wines, the response was a sigh, a faraway gaze, and a longing “Napa Valley!” Never mind that it was a French wine…

The question of how to taste that first little sip that the waiter pours in a restaurant came up. The instructor mentioned that the cork is not presented to smell, and before he could finish our experts said, in unison, “No! You don’t smell it, you squeeze it to make sure it's wet,” with requisite hand gestures.

The daughter, who at 21 possesses more self awareness than her parents, hit her dad on the arm and said, “Let the instructor answer!”

We also got the story of how the sommelier at 40 Sardines (the former Leawood hotspot owned by Michael Smith and Debbie Gold pre-divorce) was their FAVORITE, and the sommelier was so good and knew them by name, and when they ate at Michael Smith they asked what happened to the sommelier, and Michael Smith said, “He’s right up the street! He opened his own shop!”, and she walked in and he was so happy to see them, and he remembered us and walked right over to pick up some of their best “buttery” Chardonnays because he knows exactly what she likes, and we just let him pick our wines because he’s so good…

The class itself was great, as was the instructor. Just...don’t be those people.

(Favorite line from the instructor: People say the most obnoxious things about wine. "Oh, it's fruity and precocious!" You know what? YOU'RE fruity and precocious.)


My wife and I were excited to take the smoking class a while back at the KC Culinary Institute. I had received a “starter” smoker for Christmas, and we both wanted to learn more about using it. We arrived there on a cold, rainy day ready to learn. As an introduction, the instructor asked how many of us were brand new to smoking. Only a few of us raised our hands. We found most of the class had been smoking for years, then he asked whether there were any COMPETITION TEAMS in the class. At least 10 people raised their hands, and they represented at least 3 separate groups.

Again: Competition teams. IN. SMOKING. 101. WTF???

Unfortunately, this meant the class moved way too fast. The basics were sloughed over in favor of more advanced techniques, even when we and the few other neophytes tried to slow it down with questions. It felt like the instructors were trying to show off for the barbecue nerds who were drooling over them instead of teaching those of us who hadn’t dropped a grand on a Traeger fully automated pellet smoker.

Now, I don’t deny the instructors’ knowledge whatsoever. They knew their stuff, and the main instructor is a published author, decorated BBQ cook, and professional chef. I also don’t deny that I learned some stuff, even if much of it went over my head.

I simply deny that this was at all a class for beginners, and should not have been billed as such.

My favorite parts:

1. We were asked what the best barbecue in town was. Someone said Oklahoma Joe’s. Get this – the instructor said NO. Pointed at the next person. NO. The next. NO. After about 6 of these, he said Danny Edwards. Hands down the best barbecue in town. I like Danny Edwards. It’s not the best barbecue in town. And don’t be an asshole and tell me I’m wrong.

2. After the class, we tried to ask a question on how to adapt some of the techniques for use on our basic electric smoker. We were basically scoffed at and told it would do a nice job “perfuming” our meat, but we’d best upgrade our equipment if we really want to do this. Well, maybe part of taking a class called SMOKING 101 was figuring out if we “really want to do this,” jerk.

Oh, and for the record: taking that class cost us more than TWICE as much our meat perfuming machine smoker which, as it turns out, makes really good meat with real smoke rings and everything.

Taking any “adult education” class is something of a leap of faith. It’s rare that there are meaningful reviews that one can consult in deciding what is or is not a good value. But let’s agree to stick to these rules of thumb:

1. If you call your class “basics”, “essentials”, “101”, etc. you should teach it as such, and you should definitely not condescend to the very people who took it for that very reason.

2. If you are a fairly knowledgeable person (or god forbid an expert) regarding the subject matter being taught, and choose to take a “basics” class anyway, you will shut your mouth and not come off like a pompous know-it-all ass.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Old Neighborhood, Pt. 1

Saturday, I watched Gran Torino for the first time. I know; I’m a bit behind on my flicks.

If you haven’t seen it, Clint Eastwood plays a growling, bitter, bigoted, recently widowed veteran of the Korean War. He lives defiantly in his longtime home as the neighborhood around him falls into blight and becomes an incubator for gangs of all ethnicities.

Sunday, I went to my parents’ house to celebrate my brother’s birthday. While the old neighborhood has not declined to a Gran Torino*-esque level, the movie made me a bit more aware of the signs of decay than usual. It has certainly seen better days.

*Incidentally, my parents' first car that I can actually remember was a 1975 Gran Torino. It was white, with leg-burning dark blue vinyl seats. It was also adorned with a "George Brett for President" bumper sticker, distributed during his MVP-winning 1980 season when he hit .390.

Most neighborhoods, when transitioning from "working class/blue collar" to "poor", display common visual attributes. The old guard--generally long-term resident, empty nest couples in their 50s or older--still keep up their properties:

The old guard knows, deep down, that the neighborhood is going to shit. But just as people can ignore--or really, rationalize--the two nuisance pounds they gain every year, they do the same with the slow, gradual decay happening around them:

It's easy for the old guard to ignore a house like this (the rotting siding and unkempt yard look worse in person than in this picture). It keeps them sane, keeps them rooted in place, keeps them from ruminating on the herculean task of relocating all the possessions and memories accumulated over a lifetime.

Then you see this, which shockingly was occupied (as of last month, at least):

Each of these houses is less than 1/2 block from one another.

For me, distance equals perspective. I hadn't driven down most of these side streets in well over a decade, and it really opened my eyes. The places where I used to happily ride my bike were now...seedy. A little creepy. And more than a little sad.

The baseball fields where I spent countless summer nights as a player and spectator have been abandoned for years, victims of hard times and a general decline in baseball interest among urban kids:

This photo is a bit of a non sequitur; I just found it funny and appropriate to see a "watch for pedestrians" sign on a narrow street that, like nearly all KCK streets, has no sidewalk.

Just down the street is a strip mall that has been dying since I was 10. Among other things, it housed a TG&Y when I was young, where I'd buy cheap blank cassette tapes and baseball cards. Now the only activity is at Family Dollar and the tiny liquor store. There's also a health food store that appears occupied, but mostly it's just empty, vandalized space:

Demographics in the area dictate that when there is new construction, instead of a half-decent grocery store, it's a Dollar General (sorry for the blur). For the 7 things you can't get at the aforementioned Family Dollar, naturally:

I'll post a few more later...